The Department of Health said the figures in the document should be seen in the context of significant staff increases in recent years.

A spokesman also stressed that the document was 'an early draft plan' based on 'an early and partial analysis' of workforce capacity.

The spokesman said the government was committed to continuing investment in nurse, GP and other training to ensure there are enough staff to keep up with demandi but that any sensible workforce planning strategy needed to review the levels of training annually. It was equally prudent to identify potential risks and contingencies, he said.

The spokesman added that the figures should be seen in the context of the significant staff increases achieved in recent years, with an extra 18,000 nurses and more than 2,400 GPs in the two years ending September 2005.