English GP surgeries reach new patient 'breaking point'
Hundreds of GP surgeries in England have stopped taking on new patients or have applied to do so, a BBC investigation has found.
The British Medical Association (BMA) says many are at "breaking point" as they struggle to fill staff vacancies.
At least 100 surgeries applied to NHS England to stop accepting new patients in 2014-15, a Freedom of Information request revealed.
NHS England said it was investing £15m to boost the workforce.
At the beginning of November, 299 surgeries were indicating on the NHS Choices website - which provides patients with information about surgeries in their local area - that they were not taking on new patients.
Dr Chaand Nagpul, chairman of the BMA's GP committee, said practices were struggling to recruit new doctors.
"GP services are reaching breaking point as they struggle to cope with rising patient demand, falling resources and a shortage of GPs," he said.
"Closing their list is the only option to maintain safe care to their local community."
The BBC has learned that among 8,000 practices in England, some are offering a "golden hello" of up to £10,000 to attract new doctors.
In Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, three out of the four town centre surgeries have had to stop taking on new patients.
Ranworth Surgery has been struggling to recruit new doctors and recently offered a £9,500 bonus after failing to attract applicants.
The surgery also closed its patient list after the intake of new patients saw it reach almost 9,000, which it deemed unsafe.
NHS England says practices will seek approval before closing their lists to new patients.
Analysis of the Freedom of Information data suggests about 46% of the 100 surgeries which applied in 2014-15 were denied permission, or withdrew the request.
Dr Robert Morley, chairman of the Birmingham Local Medical Committee, which represents the area's GPs, said practices could decide to stop taking on new patients without the approval of NHS England.
He said in Birmingham the local medical committee had been "particularly proactive" in pointing this out to practices, making them "feel empowered to take appropriate measures".
NHS England said: "When we receive a request to close a GP practice list, we consider both the impact on patients as well as on neighbouring practices and services to avoid displacing a problem elsewhere."
A spokesman for the Health and Social Care Information Centre, which operates the NHS Choices website, said: "We can say is that as of November 2015, this is the number of GP practices that were shown not to be accepting new patients.
"Of course the caveat with this is that not all GP practices may have updated their information so this figure needs to be treated with some caution".
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: "The news that such a large number of practices have closed their lists to new patients is extremely worrying for patients and will mean even more will struggle to get the care they need."
GPs under pressure
MIAB is one of a number of insurers providing cover for practices for when they need to hire a locum doctor to fill in for a GP.
According to its claims data, stress/depression is the third biggest GP absence category, after maternity and bereavement.
This accounted for more than 10% of its claims over the past five years.
NHS England says it is introducing a national occupational health specification, "which will ensure consistent support for GPs".
A spokesman said: "We're also working with others to develop new services to combat issues like stress and burnout."