Political row over GP workforce prompts intervention from statistics czar

The UK's top statistics official has stepped into a political dispute over GP workforce data.

Andrew Dilnot: intervention over GP workforce row (Photo: UK Statistics Authority)

Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, economist Sir Andrew Dilnot, has explained why the government says GP numbers have risen since it took office, while Labour insists they have fallen.

In a letter to shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, apparently in response to an appeal for an intervention, Sir Andrew explained that both sides were using correct figures. But the two groups of politicians were measuring different things over different periods and describing the measure imprecisely, he said.

1,000 more GPs claim

The prime minister and health secretary have claimed there are 1,000 more GPs under the current government, which Mr Burnham said was 'simply not true'.

Sir Andrew pointed out that from September 2009 to 2013, for all full-time equivalent GPs including registrars and retainers there was an increase of 209. But a dip in numbers after September 2009 meant that between September 2010 and 2013 there was an increase of 1,051.

For full-time equivalent GPs excluding registrars and retainers, there was a decrease of 36 GPs between September 2009 and 2013 – a figure used by Labour - and an increase of 719 between September 2010 and 30 September 2013.

Dilnot letter:

In a House of Commons debate last month Mr Burnham accused the prime minister of regularly abusing statistics.

Figures from 2009/10, Mr Burnham told MPs, showed there were 32,426 GPs, while most recent figures report 32,201 - 225 fewer. Those figures, Labour said, included retainers but excluded registrars. 

A key reason for the the stark contrast between the figures used by the parties appears to come from a dramatic fall in numbers between September 2009 and September 2010, a period which covers the general election held in May 2010.

Sir Andrew said: ‘Because numbers of GPs are collected as an annual snapshot as at end September, it is not possible to determine, from the published National Statistics, the number of GPs when the government came to power. A more precise way of describing changes since 2009 would be as "change from the position in September 2009, the latest available figures at the time of the general election", and changes since 2010 as "change from the position in September 2010, the most recent figures after the general election".

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