The NHS in England is short of around 50,000 doctors ahead of what is set to be one of the worst winters on record, the British Medical Association has said.
The BMA warned that the number had fallen behind comparable European Union countries, with 2.8 doctors per 1,000 people compared to an EU average of 3.7.
Its research at the start of the summer showed that meeting this average would require scaling up the medical workforce by an additional 31 per cent – or a further 49,162 full-time equivalent (FTE) doctors.
The latest data showed falling primary and secondary care doctor numbers pushing the shortage up to 50,191 FTE doctors, it added.
Stats released by the Office for National Statistics today revealed there are 167,000 vacancies in health and social care in the UK.
The staff shortages come after a bruising two years battling the coronavirus pandemic.
The NHS in England is short of around 50,000 doctors ahead of what is set to be one of the worst winters on record, the British Medical Association has said (stock image)
The reason for the drop in doctor numbers is unclear, though several reasons have been suggested by experts.
There were 13,000 mental health absences in the NHS in June, while a British Medical Association survey in May found just over a fifth of doctors working in the health service said they might leave within the next year.
It also found that 21% of doctors were more likely to work in another country, 18% were more likely to leave the profession entirely and 26% were more likely to take a career break as a result of the pandemic.
Before Covid, around 4 per cent of doctors left the NHS each year – suggesting a huge exodus amid the pandemic.
A lot of doctors now supposedly set to quit were those who postponed retirement to tackle the pandemic, according to a GP.
Dr Katherine Henderson, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said medics who had returned to the NHS service have no incentive to stay.
She said: ‘Staff will do what it takes – the problem is what it’s doing to them to do what it takes. People are concerned about the moral injury and complete lack of vision about what is happening.
‘People who might be retiring imminently and are holding a lot of stuff together are going to bail out unless it’s clear to them that the things they’ve been banging on about for years are going to be addressed.
‘They’re going to go earlier than they should. It’s people who’ve got a lot of experience who will leave sooner than they should.’
The number of NHS doctors taking an early retirement in England and Wales more than tripled over the last 13 years, with 1358 doctors taking an early retirement this year compared with just 401 in 2008.
Doctors and NHS staff have also complained about abuse over the pandemic, amid the rise of anti-vaxxers and lockdown sceptics.
The shortage of doctors appears to be particularly acute in areas of depravity.
Dr Dean Eggitt, a GP in Doncaster, warned: ‘It is unsurprising that GPs are choosing to work in areas of the UK where there is less disease burden and the job is easier. The responsibility for this lies with those in the Department of Health and Social Care who failed to deliver on the promise of more GPs.
‘It is their responsibility to regard this as a humanitarian disaster and national emergency.’
The BMA warned that the number had fallen behind comparable European Union countries, with 2.8 doctors per 1,000 people compared to an EU average of 3.7 (stock image)
Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, claimed that a decade of underinvestment meant there simply were not enough GPs to care for people who needed them.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chairman, said: ‘With flu season on the horizon and even fewer staff this time round, it’s a total unknown as to how well our services will cope – if they even cope at all.’
The BMA said it was already lobbying for amendments on workforce provision in the upcoming Health and Social Care Bill, which proposes a requirement for the Health Secretary to publish a report detailing workforce planning every five years.
It comes as a survey by charity Engage Britain found that one in five people have been forced to turn to private healthcare because NHS treatment was unavailable.
Dr Nagpaul said: ‘It’s frightening to see that the gap between the number of doctors in England and comparable EU nations is widening at such pace.
‘Even more worryingly, having failed to reverse this damaging trend in the decade prior to the pandemic, the Government now has a much bigger, and incredibly urgent, task ahead of it.
‘Winter is an incredibly difficult time for the health service, and we just about made it through last year with the demands of Covid-19 on top of usual pressures.
‘With flu season on the horizon and even fewer staff this time round, it’s a total unknown as to how well our services will cope – if they even cope at all.
‘And this is before we even consider the enormous backlog of care generated by the pandemic.
‘Alarm bells should have sounded when we struggled to staff the Nightingale hospitals, so Government really cannot afford to put this off any longer.
‘Since then, we’ve seen hospital waiting lists in England grow to 5.61 million, high numbers of A&E patients waiting longer than four hours, and staff morale hit rock-bottom – all of which pose real and regular risks to patient care and safety.’
Dr Nagpaul said that new funding announced by the Government must not just go towards tackling the backlog but also to reduce ongoing pressures and to help retain and recruit more staff.
He added: ‘The current draft of the Health and Social Care Bill carries significant risks and fails to properly address the problems the NHS is currently facing.
‘For those still working in the NHS, who knows how long we’ve got them for.
‘Rather than actively retaining staff, Government has stood by as doctors work themselves to the point of exhaustion, with many now considering leaving the NHS, further depleting us of expert, talented colleagues.’