In the summer of 1948, the Empire Windrush ship steamed its way up the Thames with 500 hopeful settlers from Kingston, Jamaica.
These ‘sons of the empire’ – as the newspapers called them at the time – were the first wave recruits from the Commonwealth, brought to a war-ravaged UK to plug recruitment gaps in public services like the NHS and London Transport.
And nearly 70 years later general practice will soon see its own version of the Windrush, although they are more likely to come by EasyJet from Europe rather than traverse the Atlantic in an old German cruise boat.
Some have already arrived. Pulse reported earlier this year that Lincolnshire was leading the way – advertising conversion training, help getting on the performer’s list and a guaranteed £90k salary for 25 lucky EU GPs.
And other areas with shortages of GPs have followed their example – with 20 GPs from Portugal, Spain, Romania, Czech Republic and Slovakia all making plans to practise in Essex, Humberside and east Yorkshire.
I am sure you know the context to this. There are GP recruitment blackspots all over the country, with practices sometimes waiting years to fill a vacancy. Despite promising 5,000 extra GPs, ministers have found it increasingly difficult to attract enough extra GPs to train and/or remain in general practice. The last set of GP workforce figures were sobering reading – a drop of 1.3%.
I have lost count of the number of older GPs who have told me they have chucked in partnership and are just working the odd session now. You can’t begrudge these battle-hardened war veterans – particularly as they often look visibly more relaxed and carefree – but their loss leaves a big hole.
To give NHS England credit, they recognise this and are putting in place the quickest solution they can: recruiting 2,000 experienced GPs from the EU, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
I understand the sense of urgency comes from the very top and, for an organisation not known for its rapid action; managers are working hard to make it happen. And they need to; there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity before tougher immigration rules come in for EU nationals post-Brexit.
Of course, the original Windrush generation did not always have the warmest of welcomes when they arrived, but I am sure practices with long-term unfilled vacancies will open their arms. CCGs are currently being asked how many they would like to come to their areas – I would not be surprised if the 2,000 target is then increased as a result.
The paradox is that this comes at the same time the health secretary is declaring his ambition for this country to be ‘self sufficient’ for doctor recruitment by the end of the next Parliament. But this – much like the 5,000 GPs target itself – is fantasy politics.
The reality of the situation is that we will be relying on foreign-born doctors to keep our head above water for a long while yet.
Nigel Praities is editor of Pulse