The long-term NHS workforce plan must include a clear strategy to retain GPs, the Liberal Democrats have warned, ahead of the report’s publication later this week.
The political party has warned of a ‘GP retirement time bomb’ with NHS Digital figures showing that almost 38% of fully qualified, full-time equivalent GPs were aged 50 or over as of April this year.
Pulse polling last year found that almost half (47%) of GPs said they intended to retire at or before 60, including 1 in 8 who said they intended to retire before reaching 55.
Meanwhile, the number of fully-qualified GPs has fallen by 7% to 27,375 since 2016, while the number of registered patients at GP practices increased by 7% in the same period of time.
The Liberal Democrats have called for a legal right for patients to see a GP within a week, or 24 hours in urgent cases, towards which they have said they would increase training places for GPs, introduce reforms to retain experienced doctors and staff, and launch a recruitment drive to encourage those who’ve left the NHS to return.
NHS England has already announced it will run a campaign to encourage departed GPs to return to the profession by promoting ‘flexible roles where, for example, working from home is possible’.
Liberal Democrat health and social care spokesperson Daisy Cooper said: ‘GPs on the frontline do an incredible job looking after their patients, but increasingly many are choosing to leave or retire early because of unmanageable workloads. It is creating a vicious cycle, with patients struggling to get an appointment while GPs are under more pressure than ever.
‘This week’s plans from the government need to include a clear plan to finally recruit the extra GPs the country needs, without cutting corners, downgrading care or risking patient safety.’
Last week, the BMA called on the Government to urgently issue the long-term workforce plan to address the workforce crisis and take immediate steps to restore pay and tackle deteriorating working conditions.
‘If the workforce crisis is not addressed urgently then we fear that the NHS will experience the largest exodus of doctors in its history,’ said Dr Latifa Patel, BMA workforce lead.
RCGP vice chair Dr Victoria Tzortziou-Brown said that the college’s own research showed that as many as 22,000 GPs could leave the profession in the next five years without urgent action to tackle workload and workforce pressures.
She added: ‘These aren’t just GPs approaching retirement age, but at all stages of their careers, often citing stress and burnout as reasons.
‘The much-anticipated workforce plan should be a key opportunity for the Government to make clear how this situation can be turned around.
‘We need to see a fully worked-out plan that commits to increasing the number of GPs with revitalised GP retention schemes.
‘Even with an increased workforce, targets on GP access need to be clinically appropriate and tailored to patient needs.
‘Not every patient will need to be seen within a week, as the Liberal Democrats are proposing, and imposing such a target could perversely impact on patients who want to book regular or routine appointments in advance.’
The long-awaited plan will be ‘one of the most significant announcements in the history of the NHS’, the Prime Minister has said, and is due to include plans for ‘robot receptionists’, a doubling of medical school places and a greater focus on bringing in new NHS staff – including doctors – via apprenticeship routes. It is not known what plans it will set out to retain existing NHS staff – including GPs – who are currently in dispute with Government over workload and funding.