Labour claim of 4,000 drop in GP numbers is not reliable

26 January 2024
What was claimed

4,000 GPs have been cut under the Conservative government.

Our verdict

This is not true for the period since 2015, when there were about 2,000 more GPs in England. There seems to be no reliable way to make the comparison earlier than that.

A Labour briefing document—reportedly the party’s election “campaigning bible”—lists several examples of what it calls “Tory failure”, including the claim that there have been “4,000 GPs cut”.

This seems not to be correct, and may be based on an unreliable comparison between two datasets that measure different things.

The GP workforce data for England (the part of the health service that the UK government controls) only allows for comparisons back to September 2015. Since then, the number of full-time-equivalent (FTE), fully-qualified GPs has fallen by just under 2,000. The number of FTE GPs in total—if you include those in training grades—has risen by about 3,000, however.

Full Fact asked Labour where the 4,000 figure came from, but the party has not replied. It’s possible that it is an updated version of a Labour claim that we checked last September. Back then, the party’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said that there were “almost 5,000 fewer fully qualified GPs today than a decade ago”.

It wasn’t clear what this was based on (and Labour didn’t tell us then either), because of the same problem with comparing data over time.

It seems likely that Labour unreliably compared the current data with 2010 and 2013, because doing so produces the approximate numbers that the party used (roughly 4,000 on this occasion, and roughly 5,000 the last time).

Politicians should take care to use official data accurately. Otherwise voters may be misled about the state of public services.

Honesty in public debate matters

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How have GP numbers changed?

In order to be a GP, someone must first graduate from medical school, then work as a doctor while training to qualify as a specialist in general practice. Some of this training includes working in a GP practice under the supervision of someone more senior. (We recently published another article about the process of becoming a doctor.)

In short, doctors are not officially GPs while they are training, but they do perform some of the work of GPs, so it is a moot point whether they should be included in the total number of GPs or not.   

This is especially important at the moment because, broadly speaking, the total number of FTE GPs has fallen since 2015—but it has risen if you include the large number of GPs in training who have joined the workforce in that time. (We wrote about this issue last year too.)

It’s also important to talk about FTE GPs, not just the number of people who are GPs (known as the headcount), because some work part-time. This means that a fall in the number of England’s GPs could in theory mask a rise in the number of hours they are actually working, or vice versa.

We have not been able to find data on the changing number of GPs who work privately. This number may have been rising, as there have been reports of rising demand from private patients.

The General Medical Council publishes data on the number of registered and licensed GPs in the UK, which shows a rise from about 58,000 in 2010 to about 73,000 in 2023. This covers the whole UK, however, not just England. It also doesn’t tell us whether these GPs are working, where, or how much work they are doing. It therefore isn’t a good guide to the number of GPs that the UK government makes available to the public in England.   

What about under the Conservatives?

If you date the current period of Conservative government from 2015, when the party won a majority in the House of Commons, then as we have seen the number of fully qualified GPs fell by nearly 2,000—although the total including those in training rose by about 3,000.

If you count from 2010, however, when the whole period of Conservative-led government began, then there appears to be no reliable way to compare the number of GPs doing NHS work then with the number today.

Annual data on GP workforce numbers between 2004 and 2014 is available from NHS Digital, but this data was produced in a different way, before a change in the system in 2015. NHS Digital says the two datasets are “not comparable”.

The differences between the old and the new data are complex. As far as we can tell, it isn’t possible to adjust one data series to make it reliably comparable with the other.

Comparing the FTE “GPs (excluding retainers and registrars)” in the old data with “All Fully Qualified GPs (excludes GPs in Training Grade)” in the current data produces numbers close to the ones Labour used—although it also suggests that the old series produced generally higher numbers than the current one.

Image courtesy of National Cancer Institute

We deserve better than bad information.

After we published this fact check, we contacted Anneliese Dodds, Party Chair, to request a correction regarding this claim.

We are waiting to hear back from Anneliese Dodds.

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