In September 2015 - the starting point for former health secretary Jeremy Hunt's pledge to increase the full-time equivalent (FTE) GP workforce by 5,000 - one in three GPs were working 37.5 hours per week or more.
But the proportion of GPs working full time or more than full time has dropped steadily over the past three and a half years, from 33.3% in September 2015 to just 28.7% in March 2019. The figures, published this week by NHS Digital, show that 1,286 fewer GPs now work full time or more than was the case in September 2015.
The drop in numbers of GPs working full time is a key factor behind a reduction over the past year in the FTE number of fully-qualified GPs working in England - which came despite a rise in the headcount number of GPs.
The figures highlight the impact on the GP workforce of soaring pressure that has pushed many doctors to walk away from partnership roles, and likely reflects the damaging impact of punitive pension taxes that have forced doctors to reduce their working hours.
GPonline revealed earlier this month that one in three GPs had been forced to reduce their working hours or refuse shifts because of pension tax rules that can mean they would lose money by working more.
The workforce data show that the proportion of GPs working full time or more fell among both salaried doctors and partners - and across women and men. Among male salaried GPs, the proportion of working full time or more fell by 6.5 percentage points between September 2015 and March 2019 and by almost two percentage points over the past year alone - the fastest fall across all groups of GPs.
The proportion of GPs working between 15 and 37.5 hours per week rose by 4.1 percentage points over the three-and-a-half-year period to March 2019 - and the proportion of GPs working these hours rose in all categories.
Sustainable general practice
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard warned that the workforce data showed the need for initiatives 'to help retain our existing, experienced workforce', adding that 'addressing workload to make working in general practice more sustainable' would be key.
GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey added: 'The steady increase in patient demand coupled with hundreds fewer full-time equivalent GPs means that practices across the country are being placed under tremendous pressure and leaving too many patients waiting too long to see their GP.
'Punitive tax payments related to the current pensions arrangements are also having a serious impact on the retention of these GPs and must be addressed quickly by government.'
NHS England interim director of primary care Dr Nikki Kanani said there were 'encouraging signs' for GP numbers, with increases in FTE fully-qualified GP numbers over the past quarter and a 'significant increase in the number of other health professionals such as nurses, pharmacists and physicians that work alongside GPs'.
She added: 'Recruiting, retaining and supporting more doctors into practice remains an absolute priority for us.'