A new poll shows a majority of doctors agreeing that hospitals should offer a consistent level of service seven days a week, rather than reduce levels at weekends.

The poll of GPs and secondary care doctors across the UK, conducted by Doctors.net.uk, found that 59% agreed that hospitals should operate on a 24-hour, seven-day rolling weekly schedule, as proposed by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. He plans to offer financial incentives to hospitals which do so.

This change would see diagnostic, scanning and other facilities open all week, including Saturdays and Sundays, and more night working.

Suggestions from respondents to the poll as to how a full seven-day hospital service might be implemented in light of current financial constraints included spreading the present workload equally over seven days and not offering a premium salary for weekend working.

However, many doctors who were opposed to the idea of a full seven-day service were concerned about how much it would cost, while some claimed that it was not even possible to provide such a service for five days a week due to a shortage of staff and beds. Others warned that if the workload was spread out over seven days rather than five, there would be fewer staff available at any given time.

Meantime, the NHS Information Centre has reported that the number of staff working for the NHS fell 19,799 last year, the biggest decline in 10 years. On September 30, 2011, 1,350,377 people were working for the Service in England, a decrease of 1.4% over the same time in 2011.

Last year’s decline was in numbers of clinical support and infrastructure staff, while those of professionally-qualified clinical staff increased slightly, it notes.

NHS infrastructure support staff numbers fell 5.9% to 219,624 in 2011, with the biggest decline - 8.9% - reported for managers and senior managers, down to 38,214. Clinical support staff numbers dropped 2.6% to 347,064.

On the other hand, numbers of professionally-qualified clinical staff rose by just 254 to total 685,066, while those of hospital and community health service medical staff were up 1.7% at 105,711. Of these, consultant numbers rose 3.5% to 39,088.

Scientific, technical and therapeutic staff numbers rose 0.4% to 152,216, while there was a 1% decrease in hospital and community health service qualified nurses to 348,693. In primary care, GP numbers rose 0.9% (371) to 39,780.

"The report shows the fall in the NHS staff numbers is primarily in non-clinical, particularly managerial, posts," said Tim Straughan, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Information Centre. "Most categories of professionally-qualified clinical staff saw increases in their numbers - although nurses saw a small decline, but numbers are still up on 10 years ago,” he added.