Thousands of GPs were given temporary registration by the GMC at the start of the pandemic, but GP leaders are doubtful of the regulator’s claims they will stay on, finds Nicola Merrifield
Plans are afoot to bolster the GP workforce by targeting GPs who came back during the coronavirus pandemic.
At the start of the virus outbreak the GMC granted temporary registration to GPs who had recently retired, under emergency legislation. This summer, it contacted them to advise them on next steps if they wish to continue practising.
The legislation that allows their temporary return can be revoked at any point by the health secretary, but the GMC said it is ‘in ongoing discussions’ with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure it is given ‘several months’ notice’ before it must remove registrations from this cohort of doctors.
The regulator has been informing GPs about how to apply to restore their routine registration and licence, or retain or relinquish their temporary one. As of the summer, 8,224 GPs held a temporary licence, down from 8,306 in October 2020.
The potential boost to the workforce appears to be vast – but a GMC survey of around 4,000 of those returners at the end of 2020 shows only one in six would ‘possibly’, or be ‘highly likely’ to, restore their routine registration.
And GP leaders point out that since the survey took place many months ago, retired GPs who came back to help with the pandemic are even less likely to stay in the workforce permanently.
Policymakers are acting under a ‘false assumption’ if they believe a wave of returner GPs will stay on permanently, says Dr John Hughes, chair of grassroots campaign group GP Survival.
Working conditions in general practice have worsened in that time as demand has increased and GPs have been blamed for lack of access. And the return to more face-to-face care as society opens up poses a higher risk of catching Covid, especially for older GPs, he says.
Dr Hughes adds: ‘The GMC’s re-registration [to a temporary licence] was done without consulting people who were re-registered… they were informed they were put on it. Quite a number of them didn’t feel able to work again.’
Pulse obtained the exclusive figures following a freedom of information request to the GMC.
The findings reveal that when the survey took place – in October and November of 2020 – just a quarter of the 3,745 GPs taking part in the survey had actually returned to work, or received an offer of employment by that point.
Around 3% of all those surveyed – including those who had worked, plus those who had not – said they would be ‘highly likely’ to return, while 14% said they would ‘possibly’ do so.
The Government has a long-held ambition to bring thousands more GPs into the workforce – with the most recent target, set at the end of 2019, being 6,000 extra (including trainees) by 2024/25.
But Dr Hughes casts doubt on the idea that 17% of temporarily registered GPs would return permanently, noting that NHS England’s process for regaining GPs during the pandemic was ‘exceedingly challenging and impenetrable’.
‘There were a lot of complaints about that – and then somepeople who did go through the process were told work couldn’t be found for them.’
He adds: ‘Most people are retiring because they’ve had enough. Most of those who have gone would not be keen to come back, particularly since the working conditions and circumstances are worse now, [partly] because of the pandemic but also due to the general attitude of blaming GPs for everything.’