The Conservative Party has once again pledged to increase recruitment of GPs, and to create “50 million more GP appointments a year”.

This time the promise is for 6,000 new doctors to general practice by 2024/25, half of them fully qualified GPs along with 3,000 trainees, who would be spending longer training in general practice that they do currently.

Round 1 2015

The problem is that this is a variation of the same old promise that has been wheeled out time and again with ever-diminishing credibility since 2015 when Jeremy Hunt first promised 5,000 extra full time equivalent (FTE) GPs by 2020. That was four years ago, during the election campaign.

By the end of June 2015 Hunt was already “softening” his promise and admitting it was the highest achievable increase. But three months later he was at it again, promising an extra 5,000 GPs by 2021.

Round 2 2016

Recruiting an extra 5,000 GPs from home and abroad was also set out as an objective early in 2016 by NHS England in the GP Forward View.

Round 3 2017

Early in 2017 Hunt made the job of GPs even more onerous and unattractive by requiring them to record patients’ migration status. He also claimed that the purported £500m extra revenue from charging overseas patients for treatment could help pay for the anticipated 5,000 extra GPs (see inside page X).

Neither the revenue nor the GPs have materialised.

By May 2017 even the King’s Fund was questioning the credibility of Hunt’s promise, pointing out: “In 2016, there were 34,495 full-time equivalent GPs (including locum doctors).

“Rather than an increase, this represented a fall of 96 GPs, or 0.3 per cent of the GP workforce, compared with the previous year.”

Round 4 2018

In June 2018 official workforce figures revealed that the NHS had actually lost 1,000 GPs since September 2015, when Hunt first pledged at least 10,000 extra primary care staff, including 5,000 GPs, within five years. GP magazine Pulse revealed NHS England’s campaign to recruit GPs from overseas had signed up just 85 doctors.

Hunt confessed that he was ‘struggling to deliver’, admitting that ‘it has been harder than we thought’.

By October 2018 Matt Hancock, Hunt’s successor as Health Secretary, had abandoned the 2021 deadline, but reiterated the commitment to increase GP numbers by 5,000: by then the FTE GP workforce had sunk to more than 1,400 below the level when Hunt’s target was set.

In November Hancock was embarrassingly forced to delete claims of a “terrific” increase of 1,000 GPs joining the NHS in just three months, after being censured by the government statistics watchdog the UKSA. Hancock was counting trainees as GPs: numbers of qualified GPs had had actually fallen by 674 over 12 months.

Round 5 2019

By August even the Daily Mail was pointing to the scale of failure:

“The NHS has lost almost 600 GPs in the last year as its recruitment crisis continues, figures show. “Almost as many family doctors left the health service between June 2018 and June 2019 as did in the entire three years to March. …

“The losses again highlight the spectacular failure of the Government’s pledge to hire 5,000 extra GPs between by 2020.”

Now in November a similar promise is being made again. Would anyone bet on this being delivered?

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