The number of doctors taking early retirement from the NHS in England and Wales has more than trebled since 2008, figures suggest.
In 2020/21, 1,358 GPs and hospital doctors took voluntary early retirement or retired because of ill health, according to data from the NHS Business Services Authority.
This is a significant rise from 401 in 2007/08.
The new figures, obtained by a freedom of information request by The BMJ, come as concerns have been raised about the impact of the pandemic on medical professionals.
The BMJ reported that as the number of doctors retiring early has risen, the number retiring on the basis of age has fallen from 2,030 in 2007/08 to 1,594 in 2020/21.
The average age of retirement also fell during this period, from 61 to 59 last year.
But overall the total number of doctors employed by the NHS in England and Wales rose by 25% over the 13-year period, from 141,000 to 176,000.
Health leaders have warned the NHS workforce is “incredibly tired” after working full pelt throughout the pandemic.
A poll from the NHS Providers organisation, which represents NHS trusts, found many health leaders have seen staff leave due to early retirement or side effects from working through the coronavirus crisis.
The survey of NHS leaders in England found almost half (48%) have seen evidence of staff leaving their organisation due to early retirement, Covid-19 burnout, or other effects from working in the pandemic.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday: “I think one of the key challenges is also amongst the NHS workforce which is incredibly tired, and our survey found nearly half of trusts had evidence of staff leaving the NHS because of either early retirement, burnout, or the impact of working in a pandemic environment. And we know that there’s more of that really tough work to come.”
Commenting on the early retirement figures, Dr Vishal Sharma, chairman of the British Medical Association’s pensions committee, said many doctors plan to retire before the age of 60 due to pension taxation regulations.
“Repeated surveys from the BMA have demonstrated that over half of doctors plan to retire before the age of 60, with the majority citing pensions taxation as their primary reason,” he said.
Dr Sharma said the “punitive” pension taxation system leaves senior doctors with “little option but to consider early retirement”.
He added: “To make things worse, we know that the strain of working through the pandemic has left doctors exhausted and they continue to battle stress and burnout.
“Many have had their annual leave cancelled and they have not had adequate time to rest and recover from the tumultuous year they have had, with no sign of let up as they now face the biggest backlog and waiting lists since records began.
“The BMA demands that urgent action is taken to halt a potential workforce crisis at a time when the NHS can least afford to weather it.”
Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “The intense workload and workforce pressures that GPs and our teams have been working under, which far pre-date Covid-19 but have been exacerbated by the pandemic, are taking their toll.
“When fully-trained, often highly-experienced, GPs are deciding to leave the profession earlier than they planned to due to workload pressure, it is a huge loss to the profession and patient care.
“A lot of work has gone into increasing recruitment to general practice over the last few years, with very good results. We need to see similar initiatives implemented to keep existing GPs in the profession for longer – and we need to keep them safe and healthy.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “There are now record numbers of NHS doctors working in England and the proportion of consultants taking early retirement has remained consistent since 2015; at between 27.8% and 31% in each of the last six years.
“We recognise the pressures that NHS staff have faced during this time and the government is doing everything it can to support their wellbeing, including through £37 million this year to fund staff mental health hubs, a dedicated helpline and a 24/7 text support services.
“The NHS Pension Scheme provides generous retirement benefits for staff after a lifetime of service, and for the vast majority of members pension saving is tax-free.”