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NHS vacancies in England rise to more than 105,000 full-time posts

And full-time GP headcount continues to fall, latest figures from NHS Digital show

Caroline White

Friday, 29 November 2019

The number of full-time vacancies has risen to more than 105,000 in England, while the full-time GP headcount continues to fall, with 340 fewer in post than this time last year, the latest figures1 from NHS Digital show.

Nick Ville, director of membership and policy at the NHS Confederation, said: “This is yet more evidence that teams across the NHS are under intolerable strain, with 105,518 full-time equivalent vacancies in England for the second quarter of 2019-20, including 43,593 vacant nursing posts.

“Workforce is the number one concern among health leaders, and it’s not hard to see why. There has been commendable commitment from them to recruit and retain staff, but the NHS will need support from the incoming government to improve what is rapidly becoming a dire situation.”

Sally Warren, director of policy at health think tank, The King’s Fund, said: 'The volume and intensity of GP workloads is driving many to either reduce their hours or leave the profession altogether. While more GPs than ever are being trained, [the] figures show that GP numbers continue to decrease, with a 2% drop in the number of permanent, full-time equivalent GPs in the past year and 6.2 per cent fewer in September 2019 than in 2015.”

She pointed out that all the major political parties had made “eye-catching pledges” to boost access to GP appointments by increasing the number of GPs, but the solution wasn’t straightforward.

“Success will hinge not just on the ability to recruit and – more importantly – retain enough GPs, but also to bring in professionals such as physiotherapists and pharmacists. Equally important is investment in technology to develop models of digital care, in GP premises and to implement effective team-based models of care,” she insisted.

“If the next government wants to deliver on promises to improve health and care services for patients and the public, they must first tackle the workforce crisis,” she said.

Anita Charlesworth, director of research and economics at health think tank the Health Foundation, agreed. “[These] figures are a further reminder of the growing workforce crisis that threatens patient care,” she said, highlighting the nursing shortage in particular.

“The next government needs to ensure that we train more nurses and to do that it will have to address the financial problems that trainee nurses currently face. But training new nurses takes time and over the next few years, international recruitment is the only way to fill the gaps – we will need at least 5,000 nurses from other countries each year for the next [five] years. The incoming government must ensure that migration policy is not a barrier to achieving this.”

British Medical Association (BMA) council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “Significant holes in the workforce2 across areas such as acute medicine and mental health care, particularly in some parts of the country, mean that staff are being pushed, often at a detriment to their own health, to make up these shortfalls. This is not fair for staff and not fair for patients.

“The UK falls well below comparable high-income countries in terms of the number of doctors per population – we do not have to accept this as the norm.”

He urged the incoming government to prioritise the retention of doctors, including addressing the pension crisis, and to “ramp up its recruitment efforts” by investing in the NHS to make it an attractive career option for doctors and staff from the UK, the EU and internationally.

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: "We have 340 fewer full-time equivalent GPs than we did a year ago, and more than 1,000 fewer than we did in 2015. These numbers are going in the wrong direction - this is disappointing, it is serious, and we need to see drastic action taken to reverse this trend.”

He acknowledged that more people were training to be a GP than ever before, which was encouraging, but “we need to see detailed plans as to how we're going to retain our existing workforce,” he said.

“For too many GPs, escalating workload means that the job is not do-able and as a result highly-trained and experienced GPs are burning out and leaving earlier in their career than they planned. That's not right, and it's not safe, and it is something that the future government, whatever its make-up, needs to tackle as a priority.”

Responding to the latest monthly figures on GP appointments3, Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair pointed out that in October, GP appointments reached the highest number since records began, with around one million patients seen by general practice teams every day.

“The highest number of patients are seen on the day they book their appointment – this speaks volumes to the diligence and commitment of GPs and colleagues in the wider healthcare team,” he said.

But he pointed out: “This comes on the backdrop of falling GP numbers and the long-term picture is damning, with hundreds fewer full-time equivalent, fully-qualified family doctors than we had this time last year. GP partner numbers are falling at an even faster rate, owing to the additional stresses of owning and running practices.”

And he warned: “General practice looks set for an unprecedented winter in terms of demand.”

He added: “Recent weeks have seen pledges from politicians about increasing GP numbers, but given that we’ve lost 1,000 GPs since we were promised 5,000 more back in 2015, much more needs to be done to make this happen.”

  1. NHS Vacancy Statistics England February 2015-September 2019, Experimental Statistics. NHS Digital, 28 November 2019.
  2. General Practice Workforce 30 September 2019. NHS Digital, 28 November 2019.
  3. Appointments in General Practice October 2019. NHS Digital, 28 November 2019.

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