Published: 22/04/2002, Volume II4, No. 5902 Page 9

The Department of Health has admitted that it will fall short of the NHS plan pledge to create 7,500 extra hospital consultants 'by 2004'.

DoH director of human resources Andrew Foster said that he was expecting a shortfall of 1,000-1,500 at the end of this year, if numbers continued to grow at the current rate. The 2000 NHS plan promised 7,500 more consultants and 2,000 extra GPs by this year, but Mr Foster said that the separate targets for consultants and GPs were now seen as 'perverse' in the context of achieving reforms that were designed to shift much of the work out of the acute sector and into primary care.

'We now know the way that the target was originally constructed was not as helpful as it could have been, ' he said. 'If We are trying to achieve a shift into more cases being treated in primary care, for example, then we need flexibility on recruitment targets - it doesn't help to have a target with a perverse aspect to it.'

The less specific 2001 Labour manifesto pledge to recruit 10,000 more doctors overall by 2005, and 15,000 by 2008, gives trusts flexibility to recruit in line with the wider reform agenda, said Mr Foster.

But he insisted this meant that the NHS plan target had not been replaced, just reviewed. 'This is not a case of shifting the goalposts.

It is shifting forward the time frame, ' he said.

However, Mr Foster said that figures which include the last six months' recruitment data within the NHS, due to be released tomorrow, might show a marked improvement as many trusts had 'back-loaded recruitment to the latter half of the financial year for financial reasons'.

The British Medical Association new chief negotiator on the consultant contract, Dr Jonathan Fielding, warned that even if the NHS does not reach its target for extra consultants on time, the expansion of consultant numbers should not lose impetus.

'We need to work nationally and locally to ensure this expansion continues, especially considering the implications of the EU working-time directive on junior doctor hours, and possible effects of the new GP contract, ' he said.