Time running out to reverse 'sustained decline' in GP workforce, warns BMA

Time is running out to reverse a 'steady but sustained decline' in the GP workforce, doctors' leaders have warned, as the latest official data showed a further drop in numbers of fully qualified GPs.

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

The number of full-time equivalent (FTE) fully qualified GPs in England recorded for April was 27,743 - 26 below the total recorded for March, data from NHS Digital show. The latest drop leaves general practice almost 400 FTE, fully-qualified GPs down compared with March 2021.

Figures on appointments delivered in general practice show that practices delivered almost 24m appointments in April. This total is down compared with March, but GPonline analysis shows that the number of appointments per working weekday for the month in line with the average over the past year at around 1.26m.

Meanwhile, almost half of appointments were delivered on the day of booking in April - and face-to-face appointments made up nearly two thirds of the total, up 2m compared with April 2021.

GP workforce

COVID-19 vaccination appointments delivered in general practice in April this year surged to more than 1.3m - a sharp rise from around 400,000 in March as the spring booster campaign rollout began.

BMA GP committee workforce policy lead Dr Samira Anane said it was 'incredibly worrying' to see numbers of GPs continuing to fall.

'Today’s data shows that the NHS lost the equivalent of 26 full-time, fully-qualified GPs in April compared to the month before. It is clear that the number of GPs leaving the profession is in steady but sustained decline, with the equivalent of 1,622 fewer fully qualified GPs since September 2015, despite the fact that patient demand remains high.

'It’s incredibly worrying to see the number of GPs leaving the NHS get higher, and for each one that leaves, that’s another family doctor who is having to take on more work, become more vulnerable to stress, and also potentially leave a profession they love. Patient care is already under threat because of this, and the government cannot afford to keep its head in the sand for much longer.'

Face-to-face appointments

Dr Anane said the rise in COVID-19 vaccinations delivered by GPs, the rise in face-to-face appointments and the high proportion delivered on the day of booking demonstrated the 'dedication and resolve' of general practice teams across England. 

'Never has the myth that GPs are somehow refusing to see patients or keeping their doors closed after COVID-19 been more untrue,' she said. 'It’s remarkable then to think that all of this has been achieved against a backdrop of chronic workforce shortages, and depleted resources and government funding.

'Without real investment, a dedicated workforce plan, and enough resources for primary care to function properly, these monthly staffing figures will continue to spiral – and it’ll be too late for anyone to do anything.'

Dr Brian McGregor, of the Rebuild General Practice campaign, said: 'The data is clear and it's terrifying. While patient numbers go up, GP numbers continue to fall with 26 more lost in the past month alone. This is dangerous - for doctors, our staff, but most of all for our patients.

Patient safety

'We cannot wait any longer. The government must outline what they are going to do protect the future of general practice - and to protect our patients.'

Minister for primary care Maria Caulfield said: 'GP teams have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic and in April they delivered over 25m appointments, including lifesaving COVID-19 jabs.

'Patients should be able to see their GP in a way they choose - including face-to-face, online or over the phone consultations - and nearly two thirds of appointments in April were face-to-face, up by around 2m compared to April 2021.

'We’ve invested £520m to improve access and expand GP capacity, and there are record numbers of GPs in training as we work to create 50m more appointments a year to clear the COVID-19 backlog.'

GP leaders have hit out at the government in recent weeks for 'misleading' claims about the GP workforce and recruitment through the additional roles reimbursement scheme, which is intended to deliver 26,000 extra staff to support primary care.

GPs have also warned that a large proportion of doctors completing UK GP training who are international medical graduates could be unable to work in the UK without support to secure visa extensions or indefinite leave to remain - but the Home Office this week accused the RCGP of 'scaremongering' after it raised the issue.

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