A new school set up to boost the number of doctors in England has been told it will not receive any funding for domestic students – meaning that in future it may only be able to give places to those coming in from overseas.
The government is refusing to fund a single place at Three Counties Medical School, University of Worcester, despite health bosses in the area saying they are spending £70m a year on agency staff to plug a chronic shortage of doctors.
The school was set up to boost doctor numbers across Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire – rural areas that struggle to compete with big city training centres such as Birmingham when recruiting medical staff. The centre is expected to be completed in about six weeks, and it has the agreement of the General Medical Council to start training doctors from September.
However, the Department for Health and Social Care, which maintains a strict cap on the number of university medical degree places it funds, is ignoring pleas from local health trusts, hospitals and Tory MPs to pay for students to come and train at the school.
Professor David Green, vice chancellor of Worcester University, told the Observer: “The chronic shortage of staff in the NHS means that doctors are constantly rushed, so delays and mistakes happen and that is leading to a crisis of excess deaths. The question is how bad do things have to get before the government will act?”
He said that there was “a desperate need” for more doctors to work in the three counties, adding: “All the local health services say the school is crucial. But we still have not been allocated a single funded place by the government.”
Simon Trickett, chief executive of the NHS Herefordshire and Worcestershire integrated care board, said they were spending just over £70m this year on locum and agency staff because they don’t have enough doctors. He added: “That’s a massive premium to pay to get your shifts covered.”
He said: “It is really frustrating. The local system is 100% behind this medical school. The GP surgeries, the hospitals, the community services and the local councils all really want it. But it is being blocked from entering the market.”
Trickett said that as well as doctors working in hospitals the region urgently needed a “production pipeline” of new trainee GPs to fill the gaps as existing doctors retired, adding that this was particularly important as they had a high proportion of elderly residents.
It comes as the head of NHS England, Amanda Pritchard, called on the government to increase the number of homegrown nurses and doctors trained at medical schools. “We are seeing universities having to turn away excellent people,” she told the Times.
In the absence of any government funding, the university has managed to raise the money for 20 UK medical students to start its fast-track four-year graduate medical training this September, with support from a local charity and a one-off contribution from local NHS trusts, which do not want to see the school fail. The school received 1,000 applications from students in the UK and across the world, with international students paying £45,100 a year to support all their own training costs.
The medical school has offered places to 48 students in total, but Green said that the university could “easily” have secured training placements locally for more than 100 students if the government would agree to pay for them.
Robin Walker, Conservative MP for Worcester and chair of the Commons education select committee, said: “I’ve been telling health ministers that it is irrational to have medical schools that can’t recruit domestic medical students when we know we need them.”
He added: “At the moment we are dependent on training centres like Birmingham and Bristol to recruit doctors but they have their own demands to meet. We urgently need a local supply of doctors.”
The Royal College of Physicians has been lobbying for an expansion in medical training places for years. Its president, Dr Sarah Clarke, said: “Training more doctors is crucial to creating a sustainable and efficient health service. There are thousands of UK students ready to take up places in medical school, we just need the government to fund them.”
Next year Worcester says it will have to recruit only international students, who are less likely to stay and work locally.
The government has also denied funding to two other new medical schools in England, at Brunel University and the University of Chester.
The Department of Health and Social Care said: “Since 2017, the government has provided funding for an extra 1,500 medical school places per year. We created five new medical schools as part of this process.
“We have commissioned NHS England to develop a long-term plan for the NHS workforce for the next 15 years. This will look at the mix and number of staff required across all parts of the country, including doctors.”