A leading doctor has suggested that there are insufficient qualified doctors to run the desired seven-day NHS in England.
The Royal College of Physicians president Prof Jane Dacre has warned ministers that the issue must be addressed if their policy is to work.
Dacre highlighted research which suggests that GP posts in the NHS are not being satisfactorily filled, with gaps in rotas being common across the whole service as a whole.
This will be considered particularly worrying for the government considering that it is presently locked in an ongoing dispute with junior doctors over pay and conditions.
Last week thousands of medics went on strike over the government’s decision to impose a new contract on them, designed to make it cheaper to rota on staff at weekends.
Dacre raised her particular concerns on the subject at the annual conference of the Royal College of Physicians in Harrogate.
She emphasised that NHS trusts all over the country are struggling to locate enough staff in order to cope with the existing demand, let alone would they be able to address an expanded service.
Research by the RCP showed last year there were just over 13,000 consultant physicians across the UK – one in four of all consultants.
Yet 40% of vacant posts advertised during the last 12 months were ultimately unfilled, while 20% of consultants reported gaps in the rotas of junior doctors.
With many junior doctors threatening to leave the profession or transfer their skills overseas, there must be serious concerns that the problem could get worse before it gets better, unless an impasse is found in the ongoing conflict.
Prof Dacre commented that the situation is extremely serious, and simply must be addressed sooner rather than later.
“I feel sorry for NHS trusts, I really do. Across the country, they have created a raft of new posts to meet the rising demands for patient care, only to find that there is no-one to fill them. If we have neither enough trainees nor consultants to run the service now, how are we going to implement a safe seven-day service?”
But a Department of Health spokeswoman pointed out extra money was being invested during this Parliament – £8bn more by 2020.
She suggested this would help “make sure the right staff and support is available to create a safe NHS seven days a week”.