Ministers agree to 1,000 extra doctors

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MINISTERS are poised to agree a large expansion in the number of medical students by 1,000 a year to head off a projected shortage of doctors early in the new millennium.

The increase of a fifth on the 4,970 medical students planned for 2000, would require the building of one or more new medical schools and would have a major impact on the NHS budget. Doctors control most of the NHS resources so a rise in their numbers would mean a sharp leap in health- service costs.

Alan Milburn, the health minister, said yesterday that the Government was "actively considering" funding the expansion but the final decision would depend on the outcome of the Government's comprehensive spending review, expected in the summer.

His remarks, in a speech to the British Medical Association's annual conference of junior doctors yesterday, were notably upbeat compared with his cautious response last November, when the Medical Workforce Advisory Committee published its report calling for the increase of 1,000 places.

That report provided official confirmation of the intense pressure expected on the NHS over the next two decades as the demand for healthcare rises. Mr Milburn signalled the Government's anxiety by questioning the committee's main conclusion. He said that while much of the report chimed with the Government's own thinking, "the recommendation on increased medical school intake has very significant implications, and will need careful examination".

The change of tone in yesterday's speech drew a standing ovation from representatives of the 30,000 junior doctors attending the conference in London. The loudest applause came when he pledged better treatment for NHS staff. "The interests of staff and the interests of patients are inextricably linked. Treat staff well and they will treat patients better," he said.

The BMA's Junior Doctors Committee is also calling for an increase in the number of consultants in the NHS.