The Government has known for years that we need more GPs. Former health secretary Andrew Lansley made a pledge back in 2012 to increase the number of medical graduates coming through the system, with a target of 3,250 by 2015.
Even despite this, when health secretary Jeremy Hunt first announced that the Government was going to increase the GP workforce by 5,000 in five years, it smacked a little of politicking. Labour had a few weeks earlier announced that it was increasing the workforce by 8,000 and, with patients beginning to notice longer waiting times and shorter appointment slots, Mr Hunt had little choice but to be seen to make an effort.
The Conservative Party, he said, were drawing up ‘plans to train and retain an extra 5,000 GPs’.
But this target has been an albatross around his neck. It has been continually shifting, from ‘5,000 GPs’ to ‘5,000 doctors working in general practice’ (allowing them to include trainee GPs in their figures), to emphasising a need to be ‘flexible’ in the target.
Now, the DH and NHS England have given up any pretence that they will ‘train and retain’ GPs. Instead, they admit, 3,000 of these 5,000 GPs could come from abroad. Lansley’s medical graduates target has long since failed.
This overseas recruitment, in itself, is not a bad policy from NHS England. It is almost admirable that they recognise there is an emergency in general practice and they need urgent measures that will benefit practices immediately – not in four or five years.
Because previous attempts have failed. No one would argue with measures such as making it easier for people to return to UK general practice, incentives to remain in general practice and recruitment campaigns. But they have been implemented half-heartedly – a few thousands of pounds here, a poorly thought out poster there. And the latest workforce figures – which reveal numbers of GPs have gone down since September 2015, are testament to this.
But all GPs know the real ways to attract and retain GPs and keep general practice sustainable. It’s reversing the trends that have seen general practice defunded, work loaded on to practices, indemnity costs soaring and regulation continuing to increase. But there is little concerted effort to actually make this happen.
The overseas GP scheme highlights politicians’ failures. And as long as politicians ignore the tough – but effective – measures that GPs are demanding, they will have to rely on these short-term fixes.
Jaimie Kaffash is deputy editor of Pulse magazine