Tens of thousands of doctors and nurses will be able to train on the job under plans to tackle NHS workforce shortages.
It is expected that the much-anticipated NHS workforce plan will see the number of medics trained via the apprenticeship route ramped up significantly.
Up to one in 10 doctors and a third of nurses could be trained this way in coming years, the PA news agency understands.
It comes as the head of the NHS encouraged school-leavers to “earn while they learn” through NHS apprenticeship schemes.
The expansion of NHS apprenticeship schemes will offer an alternative to a traditional university degree and may entice people into a medical career later in life, she said.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had promised that the NHS’s long-term workforce plan will be published “shortly”.
Ms Pritchard said that the plan is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to put the NHS on a sustainable footing” as she highlighted the 124,000 vacancies across the workforce.
“With over 350 different roles available, from nursing to biomedical specialist through to peer support worker, there is a potential profession for everyone.
“One thing is clear, the NHS is nothing without its staff. That is why with more than 124,000 vacancies across the workforce, we know we need to increase training places in universities so more of our brightest and best can train to become doctors or nurses.
“But university isn’t right for every school-leaver and some young people want to start earning straight away, while others may decide on a career in health care later in life.
“So the NHS is looking to expand apprenticeship schemes over the coming years, offering a different route into the NHS where students can earn while they learn, instead of going through the university route.
“But this move isn’t just something that will benefit school leavers of the future. Young people finishing their A-levels this summer can apply for the first ever medical degree apprenticeship next year.”
“There are already hundreds of other apprenticeship schemes offering a route into the NHS, from pharmacist assistants, ambulance practitioners, through to HR schemes.
“I would urge anyone who is leaving school this year and thinking about what comes next to consider joining the NHS, it has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me in every role I’ve done.
“The upcoming workforce plan is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put the NHS on a sustainable footing.
“We’ll be setting out what the NHS needs over the coming years for its workforce to thrive, so that there is an NHS career choice that works for everyone now and in the future.”
She was speaking as she toured her old school and met current pupils.
The tour was arranged as part of the NHS’s 75th anniversary celebrations, marked on July 5 this year.
The NHS’s doctor apprenticeship scheme is due to start in September this year, where medics in training will be able to earn a wage while they study.
The concept was first introduced as an alternative route into medicine, outside the standard undergraduate or graduate university programmes.
“We don’t know if medical schools and employing organisations are going to be able to produce medical degree programmes to meet individual apprenticeship needs while also meeting the same high standards of training experienced by traditional medical students.
“We have little evidence on whether the apprentice model will work at scale, and whether employers will want to take the investment risk with no guarantee of a return.
“Ultimately the solution the NHS needs is still the same: A dramatic increase in traditional medical school places, postgraduate training pathways, and essential medical academic staff, all fully resourced and without delay.”
Professor Nicola Ranger, chief nurse at the Royal College of Nursing, added: “When the formal workforce plan comes this summer, we expect to see a funded expansion of nursing’s place in university, anything else will risk jeopardising the position of registered nursing as a graduate profession.
“All the research shows that patient outcomes greatly improve when in the care of the right number of degree-educated nurses. The apprenticeship route must be limited and not come at the expense of university-based nursing graduates.”
A Universities UK spokesperson added: “It is imperative that we train more doctors and nurses, and universities stand ready to help fill these gaps.
“Additional routes into these professions, including degree apprenticeships, have been championed by universities for some years now, and will be part of the solution to the current health and care workforce crisis.
“Of course, prospective students will vote with their feet – any new scheme must respond to student demand – just as universities will need to be reassured that these routes will be properly funded and streamlined.”
Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of MillionPlus, which represents modern universities in the UK, said: “While modern universities are keen to help address shortages in the NHS workforce, establishment and recruitment to a nursing apprenticeship is not necessarily the simplest option for increasing recruitment numbers into the profession.”
Meanwhile Mr Sunak indicated that the long-term workforce plan would also include an expansion of “specialist GPs”.
Speaking during a visit to a GP surgery in Hampshire on Tuesday, Mr Sunak said: “We want to significantly expand the number of specialist GPs working so the long-term NHS workforce plan will set out our ambitions and how we’re going to deliver that, but they’re already record numbers, we want to go further.”
But Mr Sunak refused to repeat the 2019 Conservative pledge for 6,000 more GPs by 2024.
Earlier on Tuesday, health minister Neil O’Brien told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “(Former health secretary) Sajid Javid said several years ago we were not going to be able to hit that 6,000 target because of everything that has gone on and now overall, there are about 37,000 extra doctors working in the NHS, a lot more doctors and a lot more nurses too, about 52,000 extra nurses.”