The NHS in England is short of an estimated 50,000 doctors ahead of what is expected to be one of the worst winters on record, the British Medical Association has warned.
The BMA said that the number of doctors in England had fallen behind comparable European Union countries, with 2.8 doctors per 1,000 people compared to an EU average of 3.7.
It said that its research at the start of the summer showed that meeting this average would require scaling up the medical workforce by an additional 31% – or an additional 49,162 full-time equivalent (FTE) doctors.
The latest data showed falling primary and secondary care doctor numbers pushing shortage up to 50,191 FTE doctors, it added.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said that with flu season on the horizon and fewer staff than last year, it was unknown how the NHS will cope over winter.
He added: “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.”
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.
But the doctors’ union said it wanted this to go further so that any staffing assessments must be “ongoing, accurate and transparent” so as to “adequately meet health and care service staffing needs, now and in the future”.
It is also calling for more investment into the medical workforce to pay for more medical school, foundation programme and speciality training places.
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.”
His comments come after the annual BMA Annual Representative Meeting (ARM) began on Monday.
Members discussed a motion that said “this meeting believes all doctors should be vaccinated against Covid-19, unless there is a medical contraindication”.
Proposing the motion, Dr Jacky Davis said: “The science is not in doubt, vaccines are safe and effective and we as doctors should be setting an example by backing the science.”
Speaking against the motion, Dr Zishan Syed said he was not against vaccinations but against mandatory vaccinations, but Dr Nagpaul said the motion was not about mandating vaccines.
The motion was carried by 73% of representatives, with 23% voting against it and 4% abstaining.
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