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Highest number of appointments ever as GP numbers continue to fall

The number of GP appointments in England has risen to an estimated 30.8m in October – the highest ever recorded in a single month – according to official data.

At the same time, the number of fully qualified full-time equivalent GPs in the country has dropped by 339 in the past year.

The BMA said the figures show that general practice is set for an ‘unprecedented’ winter in terms of demand and supply.

The latest statistics from NHS Digital show that in October, practices in England delivered a total of 29.7m appointments (and an estimated 30.8m), 17% higher than the previous month.

Meanwhile an increasing proportion of patients are waiting two weeks or more for an appointment.

A total of 19.6% of all GP appointments had a waiting time of two weeks or more in October – 1.9 percentage points higher than the same time last year, when it was 17.7%.

This also represents an increase from the previous month. More than 5.8m appointments took two weeks or more from booking to being seen in October 2019, compared with around 4.7m appointments (18.6% of the total) in September.

Meanwhile, a smaller proportion of patient appointments are taking place on the same day they are booked.

A total of 39% of all appointments made in October were for the same day (around 11.6m) – 1.2 percentage points lower than 12 months previously (11.2m).

In addition, the number of fully qualified full-time equivalent GPs in England has dropped by 339 since last year.

In September 2019, there were 28,315 full-time equivalent GPs (excluding registrars), 1.2% lower than September 2018, when there were 28,654.

There has been a decrease of 1,088 fully-qualified FTE GPs since September 2015, when former health secretary Jeremy Hunt made his pledge to increase GP numbers by 5,000.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has said he would increase the number of GPs by 6,000 – including trainees – by 2023/24 if the Conservatives are elected.

The figures also show:

  • The number of FTE GP partners also decreased to 18,303 – a 5% drop from last year.
  • In the last quarter, the number of FTE GP registrars has increased to 6,547, up 690 since June.
  • The headcount of all GPs has increased by 2.8% in a year – from 44,378 to 45,625.

BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘Last month saw practices delivering the highest number of appointments since this data was recorded, with GPs and their teams seeing on average around a million patients a day in England.

‘Ahead of what is traditionally the busiest time of year for the NHS as a whole, general practice looks set for an unprecedented winter in terms of demand.

‘This comes on the backdrop of falling GP numbers and the long-term picture is damning, with hundreds fewer full-time equivalent, fully-qualified family doctors than we had this time last year. GP partner numbers are falling at an even faster rate, owing to the additional stresses of owning and running practices.’

He added: ‘Recent weeks have seen pledges from politicians about increasing GP numbers, but given that we’ve lost 1,000 GPs since we were promised 5,000 more back in 2015, much more needs to be done to make this happen.’

The upcoming final People Plan is due to outline NHS England’s workforce strategy for primary care, but currently has no set date for publication.

Meanwhile, other political parties have included pledges to increase the GP workforce, if they are elected in the upcoming general election.

Labour promised to train an extra 1,500 GPs a year, in addition to £2.5 billion to ‘overhaul’ primary care premises.

The Lib Dems pledged to end the GP shortfall by 2024/25 by maintaining freedom of movement by remaining in the EU and training more GPs.