There have been "big increases" in the numbers of doctors and nurses training and working in the NHS, according to the health department.
New figures published today show that targets are "being met and in many cases exceeded", according to Health Minister John Hutton.
The recruitment figures show that there was an increase of 529 GPs in the three months leading to March, and an increase of 2,660 since September 1999 – exceeding the NHS Plan by 660.
There was an "estimated increase" of 10,000 qualifed nurses in the six months between September 2003 and March 2004. The target of 35,000 more nurses by 2008 has been "comfortably exceeded", the department said. Last year 24,284 students started nursing and midwifery training, an increase of 5,577 over 1999.
For surgical consultants, there was a 959 increase in the three months to March, a rise of 6,855 since September 1999. The health department anticipates meeting the consultant target of 7,500 later this year.
The target for cardiothoracic surgeons has also been achieved, the target of 217 was exceeded by 21.
For cancer specialists, there are now 4,332 cancer specialists – which on course for the cancer plan target of 1,000 additional cancer specialists by 2006, the department said.
Mr Hutton said: "These results show that we have more doctors and nurses than ever before and that we are shaping a NHS workforce fit for the future.
"Recruitment and retention measures are working and increased investment in training is succeeding too.
"I am delighted that we have met NHS Plan targets for the numbers of nurses, therapists and other key professional staff in training.
"We haven't achieved the consultant target yet - but there are well over 6,000 more consultants than in 1999 and we expect to meet our target later this year.
"All of these developments contribute to a big overall improvement in the NHS. Increased funding, more staff, new ways of working, shorter waiting times and reductions in deaths from heart disease and cancer. We are meeting these challenges head on - but I know there is more work to do."
The BMA welcomed news, saying the UK was so "critically short" of doctors that it was "vital" that numbers continue to grow.
Deputy Chairman of the BMA Consultants' Committee, Dr Jonathan Fielden, also warned that the European Working Time Directive for junior doctors, which comes into force in nine days time, would cut manpower hours by 213,000 hours a week – which was the equivalent to 3,700 doctors.
Dr Felden said that the increased numbers of doctors would simply allow the NHS to "tread water".
Chairman of the BMA General Practitioners' Committee, Dr Hamish Meldrum, added: "It is pleasing that there are finally substantial increases in the numbers of GPs in England. However, it is crucial that the number of GPs continues to expand if we are to deliver the health services envisaged in the NHS plan."
The figures are the latest results from two mini censuses of the NHS workforce, which together show the numbers of NHS staff at 31 March 2004.