Government delays plans to double number of medical students in England

<span>Junior doctors walk through a hospital corridor.</span><span>Photograph: sturti/Getty Images</span>
Junior doctors walk through a hospital corridor.Photograph: sturti/Getty Images

Ministers have dramatically stalled plans to double the number of doctors being trained in England by 2031 in a move that has caused dismay across the NHS, as well in medical schools and universities, the Observer can reveal.

In June last year, ministers backed a long-term plan to expand the NHS workforce and pledged, amid great fanfare, to “double medical school places by 2031 from 7,500 today to 15,000, with more medical school places in areas with the greatest shortages to level up training and help address geographic inequity”. Labour is also committed to raising the number of doctors to 15,000 by 2031.

But a leaked letter written jointly by health minister Andrew Stephenson and the minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, Robert Halfon, to the independent regulator the Office for Students, says they will fund only 350 additional places for trainee doctors in 2025-26. This is less than a quarter of the annual number widely anticipated and there is no guarantee that even that level of resource will be repeated.

The heads of universities and medical schools last night expressed extreme disappointment and said the numbers fell far short of what they had been led to expect, and were now able to accommodate. In Yorkshire and the north-east of England, where shortages are among the most serious, there will be just 52 extra places for medical schools to bid for across the entire region.

David Bell, vice-chancellor of Sunderland University, said there had been “real excitement” last autumn about more students passing through its new school of medicine, leading to an expansion of the medical workforce locally. “Now we are extremely disappointed. We were led to believe only a few months ago that there would be genuine expansion.

“This would have played an important part in addressing wider inequalities in the north-east as well as the shortages of doctors. We want to triple our numbers from 500 to 1,500 by 2030 and had serious plans to do that by the end of the decade. But this pushes us back. It is now a very tall order.”

The leaked letter says that money for the 350 extra places will be followed by “larger scale expansion” from 2026-27 onwards – but it also makes clear that the government cannot guarantee funding on this scale for new trainee doctors will be repeated for intakes in future years, saying this will be subject to review.

Professor David Green, vice-chancellor and chief executive of the University of Worcester, whose Three Counties medical school opened last September, said at the current rate the 15,000 total would not be reached for more than two decades.

“We were delighted to receive an allocation of 50 places for medical students for September 2024 entry,” he said. “We were hoping to bid for 54 more home places for September 2025 and were therefore very disappointed to learn that just 350 additional places for the whole of England are being made available. At this rate of progress it will take over 21 years to meet the NHS long-term workforce plan’s aim to double the number of medical students in training.”

According to NHS figures, there are now 8,858 vacancies for doctors in the NHS in England. The news comes after junior doctors began the latest round of strikes as part of their battle for higher pay and better working conditions, following a six-day strike last month.

In comparison to other nations, England has a very low proportion of doctors relative to the population. The average number of doctors per 1,000 people is just 2.9, compared to 4.3 in Germany and an average of 3.7 in the 38 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said Labour would stand by the commitment to double places by 2031 to 15,000: “The Conservatives have slammed the brakes on expanding medical schools, despite the NHS going through the worst crisis in its history. The Tories are moving at a snail’s pace to put out the fire. Not only does the failure to train enough staff mean patients waiting longer for care, it is also costing the NHS an arm and a leg in agency fees. A Labour government will deliver our commitment to double medical school places, but it is infuriating that the Conservatives are dragging their heels and making our job harder.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are fully committed and remain on track to deliver our pledges set out in the long-term workforce plan, including the doubling of medical school places in England to 15,000 by 2031.

“We have already expanded the number of medical school places in England to 7,500 per year – a 25% increase – since 2018 that has delivered five new medical schools. We have accelerated this expansion by allocating 205 additional places for 2024/25, a year ahead of target. We are increasing capacity exponentially until 2031 rather than dividing the additional 7,500 evenly over the years.”