The NHS has lost almost 700 GPs in the past three years despite a Government promise to hire 5,000 more.
There are now 28,697 fully-qualified GPs working in England, down from 29,379 in 2016. The figure is also 441 less than last year.
The pledge made four years ago by Theresa May and former Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is on track to fail and the current Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has already admitted it could take another five years to achieve.
Health bosses have launched desperate bids to pay foreign doctors to join the NHS or bump up existing GPs’ pensions to persuade them not to leave.
Experts said the dwindling number highlighted a ‘crisis’ in doctors’ surgeries and that GPs were under ‘tremendous pressure’ and ‘fighting a losing battle’.
NHS figures revealed that staff numbers have risen in GP practices in recent months but the past three years has seen a decline in doctors despite a Government pledge
NHS Digital today released statistics laying bare the size of the workforce in GP practices across the country.
The health service said there are now 7,302 more full-time equivalent GP staff than there were three years ago.
And over the past year the numbers of GPs, pharmacists, nurses and other practice staff have all risen.
There were 312 more doctors in March 2019 than in March 2018, along with 287 more pharmacists and 313 more nurses.
Although the number of fully-qualified GPs rose between December 2018 and March 2019 – from 28,596 to 28,967 – the longer term trend remains bleaker.
March saw the first rise since December 2017 and, since March 2016 – the first year after the Government’s five-year promise – the number of GPs has dropped by 682.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: ‘These figures highlight the ongoing crisis in primary care, and come after years of the most severe funding squeeze in the history of the NHS under the Conservatives.
‘Our GPs are overworked and under-resourced with many experiencing burnout.’
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: ‘A lot of hard work has gone into boosting recruitment into general practice and as a result, we have more GPs in training than ever before. But it takes at least 10 years to train a family doctor from entering medical school, and we need more GPs now.
‘If more GPs are leaving the profession than entering it, we are fighting a losing battle.’
She added: ‘The government promised in the GP Forward View that we would see 5,000 more GPs by 2020, as well as 5,000 more members of the wider practice team.
‘While the latter has been exceeded, and it’s imperative we keep this momentum up, it is the number of GPs that we remain desperately short of and without resolving this we will struggle to continue providing the world-class care our patients expect and deserve.
‘Being a GP can be the best job in the world – it’s intellectually stimulating, hugely varied, and rewarding – but we need to make it a more attractive career option for those who, because of the pressures, feel disenchanted, as well as doctors who have already taken the decision to leave.’
The NHS figures quoted above do not include registrars, who work as GPs but are still training and not fully qualified to practise without supervision.
In an interview with GP magazine, Pulse, in January, Mr Hancock said the recruitment drive to train and employ more GPs was ‘actually going quite well’.
He said: ‘Clearly the timing of that will be slower than was originally envisaged before my time. But what matters is making sure that we get that figure reached.’
And he added: ‘We haven’t put a date on it. We’re just getting on with it.’
The NHS also pledged in its forward plan to increase funding for GP practices to be at least £2.4bn per year higher by 2020/21.
But a struggle to recruit more GPs is translating to more patients per doctor, leaving the medics with bigger workloads and patients facing longer waiting times.
Responding to today’s figures, the British Medical Association’s Dr Richard Vautrey said a recent rise in overall GP numbers was ‘nowhere near sufficient’.
He said: ‘The steady increase in patient demand coupled with hundreds fewer full-time equivalent GPs means that practices across the country are being placed under tremendous pressure and leaving too many patients waiting too long to see their GP.’
Practice list sizes have risen by around 50 per cent since 2004 from an average 5,891 to 8,490 in December 2018.
NHS data also reveals that seven GP practices in England are now listed as having more than 50,000 patients on their books.
Just over 50 practices have more than 30,000 patients, and 2,214 have more than 10,000 patients.
Dr Nikki Kanani, NHS England’s medical director for primary care and a London GP said: ‘While the GP numbers show some encouraging signs, recruiting, retaining and supporting more doctors into practice remains an absolute priority for us.
‘Today’s figures highlight the good work being done locally to support GPs through retention schemes and flexible working, as well as taking on more trainees.
‘A significant increase in the number of other health professionals such as nurses, pharmacists and physicians that work alongside GPs means patients can get more timely and appropriate access to a wider range of highly trained staff.
‘This supports family doctors to focus on patients with the most complex conditions and eases the workload pressures our GPs face.’