The government has admitted it is not on track to meet its target of 6,000 more GPs by 2024, a situation that will leave the NHS facing “an incredibly difficult winter.”

At a Health Select Committee inquiry into clearing the pandemic health backlog, Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said he was not  “going to pretend that we’re on track when we are clearly not.”

He added that there were some “internal estimates” but these needed “fine-tuning” but planned to publish a 15-year workforce strategy for the NHS in England in the spring.

The manifesto pledge was made in 2019 by Boris Johnson along with the pledge to increase the nursing workforce by 50,000 and offering 50 million more GP appointments a year.

The BMA, alongside the Royal Colleges, charities and influential thinktanks, is now demanding that a legal duty is placed on the government, via an amendment to the Health and Care Bill currently going through Parliament, to produce a report at least every two years that provides independent and transparent workforce projection data to inform long-term decisions about workforce planning, regional shortages and the skill mix needed to help the system keep up with growing patient demand.

Health Secretary setting up to disappoint

Dr Latifa Patel, BMA interim representative body chair and workforce lead, said: “While we wait to hear how the Secretary of State proposes to tackle the NHS’s record backlog of elective care later this month, he appears to be setting up to disappoint by suggesting that this plan will give us very little detail on the most important factor – the workforce.

“This is after last week’s Spending Review woefully failed to explain how it would fund increasing staffing numbers to the level needed, and missed a vital opportunity to keep thousands of doctors working in the NHS by reforming damaging pension taxation rules that leave senior doctors with no choice but to reduce their time spent with patients or even retire early.

“Without enough doctors, nurses or wider staff, it will be impossible to make inroads into this backlog, and once again, the Government appears to be shirking obvious questions about how many staff we need."

She added that retention of GPs must be the absolute focus because although increasing numbers of medical students is much-needed, it will take at least 10 years to produce new fully-qualified GPs and a minimum of 12 years for consultants. 

General practice is the backbone of the NHS

The Royal College of GPs said it was not surprised to hear that the government are not on track as it has consistently been raising the alarm about the intense workload and workforce pressures facing general practice – and the impact it is having on patients - while the government focuses on ‘sticking plaster’ solutions to address them that do not address the fundamental challenges. 

Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “As GPs, we want to be able to provide the high-quality care that our patients deserve. But as patient numbers rise, and health conditions become more complex, we are under more pressure than ever and we are significantly understaffed. We now face what is likely to be an incredibly difficult winter, with the potential for a surge in Covid-19 and a likely sharp increase in other respiratory illnesses and flu – and GP teams will continue to play a leading role in delivering the flu and Covid vaccination programmes.

“General practice is the backbone of the NHS, making the vast majority of NHS patient contacts and in doing so alleviating pressures elsewhere, including A&E - it needs to be sufficiently resourced and supported, so that it can continue to do so. We have developed an Action Plan that we have shared with the Secretary of State and would encourage him to implement it.”