The GP return to practice scheme, launched as part of NHS England's 10-point workforce plan with funding from the primary care infrastructure fund, aims to attract GPs back after career breaks or spells working abroad.
The aspirational target suggests that more than 10% of the government's wider target of increasing the GP workforce by 5,000 by 2020 will come from persuading GPs to postpone retirement.
Last week, GPonline reported that HEE chief executive Ian Cumming told MPs that trainees and 1,000 existing GPs - either those retained in the profession or persuaded to return - would be counted towards the 5,000 target.
GP workforce target
HEE's aim of attracting 100 GPs a year by 2017/18 to return to UK practice suggests a maximum of 500 could come from this route, leaving 500 more to come from those persuaded to postpone retirement.
A total of 61 GPs registered their interest in the return to practice scheme in the first three months after its launch, and a further 78 signed up in the quarter to September.
An HEE spokeswoman said: 'HEE’s aspirational target is to reach 100 GPs a year over three years. It is important to stress that we are still in the early stages of the scheme and we have just completed the first two cohorts.
'Doctors all progress thought the scheme stages at their own rate depending on personal circumstances with some completing all the stages immediately and others spreading the stages over a number of months.'
GPC deputy chairman Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'We never expected huge numbers to come back through this route. It was always likely to be around that level, compared with previous schemes that have operated historically.'
Pressure on GPs
Dr Vautrey said he felt it was 'very unlikely' that significant numbers of GPs could be persuaded to postpone their retirement to help meet the 5,000-GP recruitment target.
'Everything is working to encouraging doctors to retire if they have the financial means to do so, rather than persuading them to stay. Unless issues of financial cuts, indemnity cost rises and bureaucracy are addressed, these are all conspiring to push GPs out of the door,' he said.
HEE has said that no regional GP recruitment targets have been set for the return to practice scheme, although the 10-point plan proposals will aim to encourage GPs into areas of greatest need with targeted investment.
NHS officials have repeatedly insisted that the 5,000-GP target will be met, despite slow GP trainee recruitment and problems with GP vacancies.
GPonline reported last month on research showing that four out of five GPs planned to quit, take a career break or reduce their hours in the next five years.