Health secretary Matt Hancock has said he will ‘look’ at including a new deadline for increasing the GP workforce by an extra 5,000 in the final version of the NHS’s forthcoming workforce plan.
He came under pressure from MPs to set the deadline during a Health and Social Care Committee hearing yesterday – but stressed it was dependent on fixing workforce retention problems, not just national training budgets.
The promise to expand the GP workforce by 5,000 was originally made by Mr Hancock’s predecessor Jeremy Hunt in 2015, who said it would be achieved by 2020.
But since then the number of full-time equivalent GPs has failed to increase and Mr Hancock previously told Pulse there was no specific date for when the Government would meet the target – though hoped it would be ‘sooner’ than in the next five years.
In May, Prime Minister Theresa May committed to recruiting the extra GPs ‘as soon as possible’.
Conservative MP and select committee member Andrew Selous asked the health secretary yesterday why the NHS long-term plan – a strategy for the next 10 years – had not included a new deadline.
Mr Hancock responded by saying he would consider whether the final version of the accompanying workforce strategy – known as the People Plan – could feature a deadline.
The health secretary said: ‘Well, why don’t I look and see if we can put a date on it in the final People Plan that comes out. It will be dependent on the Health Education England budget. It’s also dependent on how quickly we can fix the problems that are driving retention.’
The health secretary also said GP numbers had risen, ‘albeit only by 300’. According to NHS Digital data, between March 2018 and March 2019 the headcount of all GPs in England – including registrars and locums – increased by 350. But the number of full-time equivalent fully-qualified GPs dropped by 441 during that period.
He said: ‘The good news is that the latest figures on the number of GPs are rising, albeit only by 300 and we’ve got a long long way to go but at least we’re now moving in the right direction.
‘If we look back to the GP Forward View and what happened afterwards, I think that the number one thing is that the focus was understandably on hiring new GPs. That has been successful. There has been a record number of GPs in training – 3,473.
‘So there was a successful focus on new GPs. I think there wasn’t enough focus on retention – both retention in terms of people doing a full week’s work and in terms of keeping people in general practice and in general practice in the NHS.’
He added: ‘The NHS People Plan focuses on training new staff, including new GPs, on recruiting from overseas and retention. Hence why I reacted the way I did to the initial questions about the people plan because the retention piece is about far more than just the numbers coming through, it’s about the overall culture and what it’s like to work in the NHS and dealing with some of the pressures.’
Mr Selous also asked if the Department of Health and Social Care has a target for the number of overseas GPs recruited in the meantime.
Mr Hancock said the target of 5,000 GPs was an overall goal, including overseas recruitment.
He said: ‘No we don’t have a target for the share between recruitment, overseas and domestic training. We have an overall goal of 5,000 more than the 2015 baseline.’
The final People Plan is expected to follow the Government’s spending review later this year.
The interim version, published last month, outlined the NHS’s commitment to promote portfolio careers to boost GP workforce.