Figures published by NHS Digital show that the number of FTE GPs fell by 0.1% over the last year - from 34,537 in December 2017 to 34,510 in December 2018.
However, the number of fully-qualified FTE GPs, excluding registrars, showed a more dramatic drop of almost 600 doctors (2%) from 29,190 in 2017 to 28,596 at the end of 2018. The overall FTE figures have been bolstered by a 10.6% increase in the number of FTE registrars during the period, which rose from 5,347 in December 2017 to 5,913 in December 2018.
Meanwhile, numbers of FTE partners contined to fall rapidly over the period. The numbers of partners fell by 5% from 20,036 in 2017 to 19,056 in December 2018, a drop of 980. The NHS lost 206 FTE partners in the final three months of the year. In headcount terms, the number of partners fell by 1,003 during 2018, dropping 4.4% from 22,623 to 21,620.
The total GP headcount increased by 459, or 1%, in the 12 months to December 2018, from 43,937 to 44,396. This could suggest that increasing numbers of GPs are opting to work part-time. A GPonline poll earlier this week found that 40% of GPs had cut the number of sessions they worked over the past year to improve their work/life balance.
Dr Krishna Kasaraneni, GPC executive team lead for workforce, said: 'Despite pledges from the government to increase numbers of GPs, these figures confirm that the complete opposite is happening on the ground. Workforce shortages continue to blight general practice and exacerbate other workplace pressures, including unmanageable workloads for the remaining staff.
'It is important, however, to note the great progress made in the recent five-year contract deal, which will improve the way practices can work together, with a wider range of health professionals to manage demand and improve working conditions for GPs. It is by making general practice a more attractive prospect, and fostering a more positive working environment, that we can begin to recruit and retain more talented doctors to the profession.'
GP partnership review chair Dr Nigel Watson told GPonline that he wasn't worried by the latest figures. He said: 'I would hope that with the number of trainees coming in, with the investment that hopefully will come through and with the [partnership's] recommendations if they’re implemented, in three to six months' time we’ll see that bottoming out and then start going up.'
Addressing the sharp drop in GP partners, he added: 'That’s why the partnership review was commissioned. We knew that the numbers were falling… We've published the review, the long-term plan and the contract, so what we’ve got to do now is deliver those [reccommendations] and make the real difference at the frontline which means that hopefully we’ll start seeing those numbers reverse.'
The government is committed to increasing the GP workforce by 5,000, however health secretary Matt Hancock has previously admitted that this is proving difficult. The DHSC dropped the time limit attached to the target towards the end of last year.
Under the orignal target set by Mr Hancock's predecessor Jeremy Hunt, the government pledged to increase the FTE GP workforce by 5,000 by 2020/21, using the 34,592 FTE GPs in September 2015 as a baseline.
However this latest set of statistcs published by NHS Digital uses a new method for calculating workforce figures and, as such, the new data is not comparable with any figures from before December 2017. NHS Digital plans to produce revised historial figures from September 2015 through to the present using the new methodology by the end of April.