Experts said patients were being put at risk by a scarcity of family doctors Credit:Alamy The national shortages have contributed to lengthening waiting times to see a doctor and a sharp rise in the number of practices refusing to take new patients. Official figures show the number of patients waiting at least a week to see a GP has risen by one third in three years, with more than 14 million patients waiting a week to get an appointment, or giving up, in 2015.Last week plans for a national ‘Uber– style’ system of private GP appointments using NHS doctors prompted a backlash from some medics.The new service will match patients who are prepared to pay up to £70 for an appointment with GPs working in NHS practices in their spare time. It came days after figures showed a rise in average earnings for GP partners, with 15,000 doctors earning more than £100,000 a year. A Department of Health spokesperson said: “This Government is committed to making sure that patients get the right care at the right time from well-resourced GPs as part of our commitment to a seven-day NHS. “”Total investment in general practice in England rose to over £9bn in the last year; an increase of almost 5% from 2014/15. We have also backed NHS England’s GP Forward View with a further £2.4 billion a year by 2020/21, which will be used to support general practice, including increasing GP numbers, reducing pressure on staff and retaining a healthy GP workforce well into the future.” NHS out-of-hours services are being run without a single doctor in some parts of the country, as other practices turn to refugee medics to plug desperate shortages of GPs.Experts said patients were being put at risk by a scarcity of family doctors, which could result in up to 600 practices closing their doors by 2020.The growing crisis means parts of Yorkshire covering up to 300,000 patients have been left without any doctor to send out at night, an investigation found. Senior doctors said the situation was “appalling” and in need of urgent action, with patients left in danger by “poor quality, unsafe care”.NHS leaders in Cumbria are drawing up plans to recruit refugee doctors, amid warnings that the state of local GP services has become “very fragile”.Forecasts suggest that on current trends, Britain will face a shortfall of almost 10,000 GPs within four years. Rising numbers of family doctors are retiring early, partly fuelled by Treasury rules which have increased tax rates for those with pension pots worth more than £1 million.Meanwhile, the number of trainee doctors choosing to become GPs is falling far short of demand, as waiting lists to get an appointment rise.In Yorkshire, NHS Doncaster clinical commissioning group admitted that its out-of-hours services had been operating without a single GP to treat patients who fell sick overnight.FCMS, which provides cover for a population of 300,000 people in south Yorkshire, said that on eight occasions during August it had no GP present.On six of the instances a doctor was available by phone, while on two occasions, including an eight-hour overnight shift, there was simply no doctor available at all, the firm admitted. Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings. In Glasgow, out-of-hours services have been closed at short notice, during the summer period, after health managers were unable to find GPs to work shifts.An NHS Glasgow spokesman said: “Despite the assistance we get from GPs, including the support of many who come in at short notice, we have had to make short notice closures of centres when we do not have GP cover.”Health service managers in Cumbria are drawing up plans to recruit refugee doctors to work as local GPs. The proposals to employ foreign doctors granted asylum status, follow NHS research warning that general practice in the region is “very fragile,” with 47 per cent of GP partners planning to retire within a decade.The area is among several offering trainee GPs “golden hellos” of £20,000 on top of their salaries, in a bid to fill gaps.Dr Geoff Jolliffe, interim clinical chairman of NHS Cumbria CCG and a GP in Barrow, said: ‘If there are competent people who can speak English and are properly trained and can pass our procedures then I think that is a valid thing to do, but I don’t think it will solve our problems.“The long-term solution will be to understand what attracts people and redesign the job accordingly.”An NHS spokesman said the plans, which could also lead to the recruitment of ex-forces doctors, were not formal proposals, and were part of schemes which would go to public consultation.Rising numbers of family doctors are retiring early, with average retirement age dropping to 59 by last year. One in three GPs surveyed last year said they intended to retire in the next five years. A spokesman said the problem was exacerbated by a lack of doctors, market forces pushing up locum rates for doctors, and changes in tax rules.Dr Dean Eggitt, medical secretary for Doncaster’s local medical committee, said the system was not safe.“It is an appalling situation that they are running an out-of-hours service that is supposed to be GP-led, subcontracted to GPs, without GPs,” he told Pulse magazine.“This is NHS care on a shoestring budget, cutting corners and only doing what you can afford – which is poor quality, unsafe care.”He urged regulators to examine the matter, in order to protect patient safety.