More than one in three GPs plan early retirement as pandemic and workload take toll

More than a third of UK GPs plan to retire early and many more to reduce their working hours in the coming year as unmanageable workload and the pandemic leave the NHS facing a 'ticking timebomb', the BMA has warned.

BMA House (Photo: Malcolm Case-Green)
BMA House (Photo: Malcolm Case-Green)

Asked how their career plans for the year ahead had changed, 36% of GPs who responded to a BMA poll said they planned to take early retirement.

Just over half of respondents said they planned to reduce their working hours, around a fifth said they planned to quit the NHS for an alternative career or to move abroad - and around 15% said they planned to shift to working as a locum. Among doctors who had changed their plans, workload and personal wellbeing were the main reasons cited for the change.

GPs responding to the poll also expressed deep concerns over the likely impact of delays to care triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic on patients, with 62% of respondents saying they were 'very concerned' around 'the likely health outcomes of patients who have had to wait longer than before the pandemic to be seen or treated.

GP workload

Nearly seven in 10 GPs who responded to the poll said they were 'not at all', or 'not very' confident that their practice would be able to cope with demand as normal services resume as pandemic pressures ease in the UK.

GPs who took part in the survey reported colleagues in tears after working under 'phenomenal' pressure - and hit out at the government for 'claiming the success of the profession's vaccination delivery as their own'.

Warnings over the potential impact of the pandemic and workload pressure on the GP workforce come after GPonline reported last month that the profession was 'at breaking point' after a surge in appointments.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'General practice, like much of the NHS, is currently facing unprecedented pressures as we battle to keep patients safe during the pandemic on top of a growing backlog of care.

Burnout risk

'No GP is a stranger to working long hours or seeing colleagues break down with stress, and as a result, many are now considering leaving the profession altogether in order to get the respite they so desperately need. Not only does this deprive the NHS of talented doctors, but it also hinders patient care, drives up waiting lists, and places extra pressure on those who decide to stay.

'We’re not yet out of the woods with COVID-19, and the backlog won’t be tackled overnight, so the BMA’s findings must act as a wake-up call to UK government and be treated with the utmost urgency. Without a functioning general practice system - the gatekeepers of the NHS - the entire health service teeters on a cliff edge.

'Our calls must be listened to, and our workforce truly valued. This means giving GPs the respite they need and access to proper breaks to ensure no more feel forced to leave a career they’ve worked so hard to achieve. It doesn’t bear thinking about where the UK would be if it hadn’t been for the NHS during COVID-19. The least the UK government can do is protect it in return.'

A Yorkshire GP responding to the survey said that after 20 years of NHS service they had come closest to leaving general practice in the past few months.

COVID-19 vaccination

'It mainly comes down to lack of confidence in a government that failed the public and profession during the pandemic and is now claiming the success of the profession’s vaccination delivery as their own in order to hide their failings,' the GP said.

'Like most, I’ve had days where I wanted to stop. I’ve had colleagues in tears - some scared of what is happening around us and some completely overwhelmed with the avalanche of work that has hit general practice. If things don’t change in the next few weeks, I do worry that many colleagues will leave the profession, not because they have failed, but the government and the system failed them.'

Another GP said: 'I do two clinical days and go home a zombie. In the last few weeks, I’ve sat at home, once or twice until two in the morning, concerned I may have missed something.

'The pressure during the day is phenomenal, more than I have ever experienced and several GPs are now saying the last month is the hardest they have ever worked. Many are looking to take their pension and go.'

Pandemic

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: 'It’s deeply worrying that more and more doctors are considering leaving the NHS because of the pressures of the pandemic - talented, experienced professionals who the NHS needs more than ever to pull this country out of a once-in-a-generation health crisis.

'Doctors and other healthcare workers have told us they need space and time to rest and recuperate – especially as we look ahead to tackling the frightening backlog of care of millions of patients.'

A DHSC spokesperson said: 'GPs have been playing a vital role in our response to COVID-19 throughout this pandemic and we are grateful for their tireless work.

'Alongside their urgent work keeping vital services going, practices are administering a large proportion of COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as flu jabs, and continue to be there for all of us when we have health concerns.

'To help expand GP capacity, we have made available an additional £270m extra funding until September to ensure GPs are able to continue to support all patients.'

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