New health secretary Dr Thérèse Coffey has confounded GPs by claiming their numbers have been ‘stable’ since the last general election.
Interviewed yesterday morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today show, Dr Coffey was defending her new ‘expectation’ that GP practices offer non-urgent appointments to patients within two weeks.
During the interview, presenter Nick Robinson questioned whether the target was ‘building up expectations’ on GPs in the midst of a workforce crisis.
The health secretary responded that she was ‘happy to stand up and be the champion for patients’ but Mr Robinson pointed out that ‘GPs are leaving the service and choosing to work part-time because they find it too stressful’, asking her whether ‘the number of GPs [has] gone up or down since the last election’.
Dr Coffey responded: ‘I think the numbers are pretty stable.’
She went on to reiterate the comments despite Mr Robinson pointing to a recent House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee report that said 717 full-time equivalent GPs were lost in England between March 2019 and March 2022.
Dr Coffey said: ‘Well, I think the numbers have been pretty stable but, of course, we want to bring more people into general practice. Nevertheless, we’ll be working to try and free up appointments that today GPs are the only people who can make prescriptions for certain kinds of drugs, and we’ll continue to develop that and of course we’re still working on the broader workforce plan.
‘But I think it’s important coming in as a new health secretary to be very clear on my expectations and be the champion for patients, focusing on primary care in particular, but also our ABCD, because I’m also conscious that some of the services on which people rely the most are currently under, I expect, a great stress, and that’s why I’ll be setting out in more detail to Parliament some of the activities we’ll be undertaking.’
Dr Coffey set out her ‘plan for patients’ this week, which will see GP appointment waiting times published at practice level from November; pharmacies taking on contraception prescribing and management; new roles added to the ARRS; and tweaks to GP pension rules to avoid ‘unnecessary’ taxes.
It also focused on ambulances, backlogs and social care and dentists (‘ABCD’).
There were 27,507 fully-qualified FTE GPs in July, down from 27,558 the previous month and 27,750 in July last year.
Former health secretary Sajid Javid had admitted the Government will fail to fulfil its election pledge to recruit 6,000 additional full-time equivalent GPs by 2025.
Highlighting the confusing comments on Twitter, the BMA’s GP Committee praised the BBC presenter for holding the health secretary to account.
A ‘staggering’ BMA survey in May found that one in eight GP trainees will choose not to become GPs in future.
Meanwhile, fewer than a third of GP trainees (31%) in England see themselves working full-time in general practice a year after qualifying, according to a new study by The King’s Fund published last week.
Out of those not planning to work full-time, 78% said the ‘intensity of the working day’ was the reason they did not want to do more sessions.
Amid workforce shortages, GP locum bookings doubled from September 2021 to September 2022, according to the National Association of Sessional GPs (NASGP).