Official figures showing the GP workforce has increased over the last 12 months have been dismissed as ‘disingenuous’ by the BMA.
New data from NHS Digital suggested the 34,726 full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs working in June indicated a 4.2% rise on the 33,329 figure from June 2020.
But the statistics, published in a monthly format for the first time, have been rejected by frontline GPs who insist the primary care workforce is still struggling to cope with long-term staff shortages.
Responding to the figures, BMA GP Committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘Today’s GP workforce data is disingenuous and fails to accurately reflect the staffing shortages that we, and thousands of doctors across England, know are facing primary care – and have been for at least a decade.
‘The methodology NHS Digital is now using no longer includes estimated data to accommodate for the small proportion of practices that upload no or only partial workforce figures each quarter. As a result, this makes it look like the decrease in the GP workforce is less than the actual reality shown across previous datasets.’
According to Dr Vautrey, it is ‘clear that the change in methodology was designed to obscure the reality’, with the data release ‘now less accurate’ and ‘simply’ not capturing ‘what we know to be happening on the ground’.
He added: ‘The workforce crisis has been at the centre of GP pressures for over a decade, so to play down the reality of it is not only incredibly frustrating, but also insulting to the thousands of GPs who experience the impact that workforce shortages are having on their profession, and patients, every day.
‘We can’t make improvements without understanding the extent of the problem, which is why NHS Digital must be allowed to revert to its original methodology as a matter of urgency.
‘We’re already losing talented, experienced GPs to the workforce crisis – attempting to gaslight them into believing it’s not real is only going to drive more away.’
An NHS Digital spokesperson said: ‘NHS Digital is the trusted data provider for the NHS in England. We publish data in a clear and impartial way to provide the best possible insights to improve health and care services.
‘We have worked in close partnership with stakeholders in order to refine our methodology for the GP workforce statistics. This has included removing historic estimates of workforce numbers to improve accuracy.
‘We are committed to continuously improving our data services and to supporting GP practices to provide high-quality, reliable data to further enhance the completeness of the GP workforce statistics.’
A GP in the south of England said: ‘I’m a partner and in the past year I have lost a partner to early retirement and two partners to periods of sick leave due to the stress of the job.
‘You cannot talk about workforce in general practice without also talking about workload. We simply do not have enough GPs to cope with ever-expanding patient demand. Our funding assumes three patient contacts per annum for every patient on our list. We are currently running around seven per annum.
‘I have asked a couple of our salaried GPs who I think have the right stuff to be partners whether this is something they would consider but their response is always the same – they see how hard we’re working and do not want to subject themselves to the same ever increasing workload.”
Another, in the southwest, said: ‘I have just got home from another 13-hour day. There is a vicious cycle happening with our poor workforce numbers nationally.
‘Every time a GP reduces their hours or quits, or a post is unfilled, the strain on the remaining GPs increases.
‘That leads to more GPs leaving. We can’t keep doing this. So many of us are at breaking point.’
Another GP, based in the north of England, said: ‘The Government says that there are more staff working in primary care, funded through the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme – this may be true, but they are not reducing the work on GPs; if anything they are only assisting with otherwise unmet need.
‘The GP partner workforce is decreasing – I know of colleagues and practices where colleagues are either retiring early or leaving for work elsewhere.’
The latest figures were published after the RCGP warned an emergency rescue package was needed if patients were to get the care they need once the pandemic is over.
RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall said that the job of GPs was ‘largely undoable’ even before Covid-19 but that general practice had now reached ‘breaking point’.
He called on new health secretary Sajid Javid and the incoming NHS England boss Amanda Pritchard to ‘save’ general practice by implementing a five-point recovery plan to prevent GPs and other members of the practice team from burning out and ensure patients can continue to receive the care they need, well into the future.
Professor Marshall said: ‘The launch of our five point action plan sends out an SOS for general practice – and crucially, it also provides realistic solutions for halting the crisis and protecting the care of our patients and the wider NHS by investing in the hardworking GPs and their teams who provide that care.’
The Department for Health and Social Care insisted £270m had been invested to expand GP capacity to ensure practices could handle the increased demands and recovery pressures as a result of Covid-19 on top of the £1.5 billion for extra staff committed for general practices until 2023/24.
A spokeswoman said the current financial year had seen the highest ever number of doctors accepting a place to train as a GP and that the DHSC was committed to increasing the number of training places available to 4,000 a year.