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Doctors Warn Of Major Staffing Shortage That New GP Funding Won't Fix By "Magic"

Doctor groups have criticised the government's plan to use locums to increase face-to-face GP appointments (Alamy)

4 min read

GPs have warned that they will struggle to find enough doctors to expand services, and that the Department of Health and Social Care is expecting them to "magic locums up” with new funding announced today.

On Thursday, health secretary Sajid Javid announced a £250million winter access fund which he says will enable GP practices to improve availability of services for patients and increase same day appointments.

Javid stressed that the funding will also "really help" with the number of locums – doctors who work on a shift-by-shift basis across a number of practices according to need – that are available to surgeries across the UK.

But there is concern that a chronic shortage of qualified doctors working as locums means that even with extra funding, surgeries may struggle to fill gaps. 

“Where is the magic locum tree?” Dr Richard Fieldhouse, chairman of The National Association of Sessional GPs (NASGP) asked. 

He believed the government’s decision to make it the responsibility of surgeries to find more doctors shows they are "clearly panicking and don't have a plan, because this one is not going to work”.

He added that recruitment has long been a problem for surgeries and the government should instead focus on expanding the pool of available doctors, rather than simply allocating funding for ones who are not there. 

Fieldhouse also worried that even if surgeries could find enough doctors, most practices would still struggle for space to accommodate the subsequent increase of patients. 

"There just aren't enough spare rooms, a lot of them are converted houses or they're just full and full of doctors already,” he explained. 

The British Medical Association (BMA) agreed that staff funding alone would not boost services when there is not “a large group of locums on standby, waiting for a call from their local practice to go in and help out” and did not believe today's announcement would lead to material change. 

“The suggestion that this funding will be used to employ locum GPs to increase the number of appointments in surgeries is baffling," Dr Ben Molyneux, chair of the BMA sessional GPs committee told PoliticsHome. 

"Has the Secretary of State said where these doctors will come from?

“Those locums who can and want to be in work, are already doing so, and doing all they can to provide care to patients in services across their local area.”

Molyneux blamed a "failing system" in which GPs locums are already working flat out. 

"While new money may help, there aren’t enough of any kind of GP to go around, so this announcement is unlikely to make a material change to many practices out of hours services or urgent treatment centres,” he added.

Javid also faces criticism over lack of clarity on how individual practices will access the new funding. 

“So far, the Secretary of State has not been able to answer these questions, showing how out of touch and ill-thought through the proposals are,” Dr Richard Vautrey chair of the BMA's GP committee said. 

NHS England has said practices which fail to provide an "appropriate" level of face-to-face appointments will not be eligible for the new funding, but with GP morale already at “rock bottom”, Vautrey said linking access to funding to performance “will be an insult too far”.

"We know practices are having real difficulty recruiting not just doctors, but practice nurses and wider healthcare staff – and in areas where recruitment is a big problem, this money is unlikely to make much different at all.

“Instead it will pile extra work on the existing workforce and produce very little in the way of improved access for patients.”

TV doctor and GP Rosemary Leonard accused Javid of "stirring up anti-GP rhetoric", saying there are not enough locums to employ to plug the gaps.

“There isn’t the workforce to see people face-to-face,” she told BBC Breakfast.

A spokesperson for NHS England did not confirm how many locums are currently available for work, and said it was the responsibility of local Clinical Commissioning Groups to decide how to best allocate funding they receive in their area. 

Javid has also been criticised for insisting that “every penny” of the £250million winter funding is new, after facing questions over whether GPs can access the new investment in addition to surges in winter cash made available annually to tackle increased demand. 

“This is money I secured in the spending round discussions just a few weeks ago for the winter, and this is money directly from that,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

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