Hunt reveals plans to train up to 1,500 more doctors a year

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced plans to train up to 1,500 more doctors a year in a bid to tackle the recruitment crisis and make NHS England "self-sufficient" in doctors by the middle of the next decade.

Mr Hunt will reform the current 6,000-a-year cap on students at medical schools, allowing numbers to grow by as much as a quarter and ensuring that all young people with the capability to train as a doctor have the chance to do so.

And he will announce a new requirement for all doctors trained on the NHS to work for the public healthcare service for a minimum of four years after graduation.

The dramatic drive to boost doctor numbers is estimated to cost £100 million by 2020, but could sharply reduce the £1.2 billion a year spent on medical locums, many of them from overseas.

NHS hospitals rely heavily on foreign doctors, who currently make up 25% of the medical workforce, and spend £3.3 billion a year on agency staff, including locums.

Speaking to the Conservative conference in Birmingham, Mr Hunt is due to say: "As well as delivering higher standards today, we need to prepare the NHS for the future - which means doing something we have never done properly before: training enough doctors.

"Currently a quarter of our doctors come from overseas. They do a fantastic job and we have been clear that we want EU nationals who are already here to be able to stay post-Brexit. But is it right to import doctors from poorer countries that need them whilst turning away bright home graduates desperate to study medicine?

"From September 2018, we will train up to 1,500 more doctors every year, increasing the number of medical school places by up to a quarter. Of course it will take a number of years before those doctors qualify, but by the end of the next Parliament we will make the NHS self-sufficient in doctors."

Aspiring doctors will be able to apply for the new places from the 2017/18 academic year to start their courses in September 2018.

In order to ensure the taxpayer gets value from the £220,000 investment in each medical graduate, the Government will for the first time require each one to work for at least four years in the NHS, in a similar arrangement to that for graduates whose education is sponsored by the armed forces.

Mr Hunt will say that the cap currently forces universities to turn away half of those who apply to study medicine. Lifting it will ensure NHS England has the doctors it needs for the future, with hospitals expected to have to look after one million more over-75s within the next five years, he will say.

British Medical Association council chairman Mark Porter said the extra training places fell "far short of what is needed".

"Jeremy Hunt has been Health Secretary for four years, and while it is welcome that he has finally admitted the Government has failed to train enough doctors to meet rising demand, this announcement falls far short of what is needed," said Dr Porter.

"The Government's poor workforce planning has meant that the health service is currently facing huge and predictable staff shortages. We desperately need more doctors, particularly with the Government plans for further seven-day services, but it will take a decade for extra places at medical school to produce more doctors. This initiative will not stop the NHS from needing to recruit overseas staff."

Royal College of Physicians president Professor Jane Dacre said: "The RCP has long argued that rota gaps and staff shortages are the greatest threat to patient safety and have significantly contributed to low morale among junior doctors.

"The NHS needs more doctors, and this dramatic increase in medical school places will help relieve many of the pressures faced by the NHS in the long term, and support a more sustainable workforce."

The chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, Maureen Baker, called for assurances that the boost for hospital doctors would be matched by measures to ensure sufficient numbers of family doctors, whose teams make up 90% of patient contacts in the NHS.

"We need thousands more doctors, we need thousands more GPs, and it's important that we maximise the home-grown talent and potential we have so that our NHS has enough doctors to deliver the excellent patient care it is world-renowned for," said Prof Baker.

Shadow health secretary Diane Abbott said: "Training more doctors and nurses here is a good idea, but it will need additional money and the Tories are cutting £22 billion from the NHS budget.

"The idea we can be self-sufficient in medical staff is ridiculous. An additional 1,500 doctors' training places only scratches the surface of the professionals that are needed to staff our health service. Some of these will drop out and others choose to work abroad.

"The NHS will be facing disaster without freedom of movement. This Brexit fantasy is deeply damaging to the NHS."