Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has confessed that he is ‘struggling to deliver’ his pledge for 5,000 additional GPs by 2020, admitting that ‘it has been harder than we thought’.
Mr Hunt said that while he is not abandoning the ‘very, very important pledge’, it was ‘taking a bit longer than I had hoped’.
This comes after official workforce figures revealed that the NHS has actually lost 1,000 GPs since September 2015, when Hunt first pledged to add at least 10,000 extra primary care staff, including 5,000 GPs, within five years.
Mr Hunt told The Guardian: ‘We do need 5,000 more GPs and we are struggling to deliver that pledge, but I’m absolutely determined to do so because GPs are working incredibly hard; too hard.
‘I got quite widely ridiculed when I made the pledge in 2015. I wanted to nail my colours to the mast of getting more GPs into the system. But it has been harder than we thought.’
However the health secretary continued: ‘This is not a pledge that we’re abandoning because it’s a very, very important pledge for the NHS and with general practice. It’s just taking a bit longer than I had hoped.’
Mr Hunt, who is now the longest serving health secretary, confirmed that understaffing is ‘the biggest priority that we have now. It’s a huge challenge to ramp up our staffing in the NHS.’
Speaking about NHS staff, he added: ‘They need to know that, yes, you might have one bad winter but it’s not going to be a permanent [series of] nightmarish winters and it’s not going to be a winter that lasts 12 months of the year, as in Game of Thrones.’
Mr Hunt also spoke about Prime Minster Theresa May’s commitment to the NHS, and said: ‘You should not underestimate how committed she is to the NHS. So she is absolutely 100% behind getting this right.’
He explained that he’s been ‘making the NHS’s case’ for ‘significant and sustainable funding increases’ in order to meet the challenges it is facing face, adding that he has been urging Ms May for an annual increase as close to the 4% that the NHS has during the Labour Government before 2010.
However, it seems that the treasury thinks that anything above 2% to 2.5% is unaffordable.
Mr Hunt said that he favours a 10-year budget plan, and said: ‘We have to recognise that we have a once-in-a-generation challenge and the choice we have as a country is: are we going to deal with that challenge in an ad hoc way, living hand to mouth year in year out, or are we going to look at this strategically?’
The news comes as a Pulse investigation revealed in 2017 that the Government was a long way off being able to deliver the 5,000 extra GPs pledge.
The Department of Health and Social Care told Pulse it would not be making a statement on the health secretary’s comments on the pledge, which also featured in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto.
NHS England also declined to comment.
Health Education England’s primary care lead Professor Simon Gregory said: ‘HEE is committed to continued investment in GP training through a wide range of initiatives and programmes to keep the training numbers growing year on year.
‘We will continue to develop initiatives such as our general practice marketing campaign, now in its third year, to help raise awareness of general practice as a career of choice and its unique selling points as a specialty.’
What is the Government doing to boost GP numbers?
The Government has launched a number initiatives to try to keep GPs in the workforce, such as the £2.4bn GP Forward View rescue package announced in 2016.
This included the GP retention programme, which was supporting 254 GPs to stay on in the profession by the end of last year.
Earlier this year, the Government increased the scale of its GP trainee ‘golden hello’ scheme, after a promising take-up last year, with 92% of places filled in 2017, according to health minister Steve Brine MP.
And it has since been revealed that 1,000 full-time equivalent GPs have left the workforce since 2015 – when the Government set out to boost GP numbers by 5,000 in five years.
Additionally there are signs of growing health inequalities, with official data showing GP numbers are declining faster in areas of England where patients are on the lowest incomes.