Author: Denis Campbell
Thousands more overseas doctors will be able to come and work in the NHS after Theresa May heeded pleas from cabinet colleagues to scrap limits that hospital bosses had criticised as “absolutely barmy”.
The relaxation of immigration rules, which is due to be announced imminently, represents a victory for Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid and follows a vociferous campaign by NHS organisations and medical groups.
They have been arguing that medics should be taken out of the cap on skilled workers allowed to work in Britain, in order to help tackle the NHS’s deepening workforce crisis.
Hunt, the health and social care secretary, and Javid, the home secretary, have been privately lobbying the prime minister to ease restrictions that between November and April denied more than 2,300 doctors from outside the European Economic Area the chance to work in the NHS.
Under the current immigration system the number of non-EEA skilled workers of all sorts able to come and work in Britain on a tier-2 visa through a certificate of sponsorship is capped at 20,700 a year – a ceiling set by the Home Office.
However, the government has decided that the NHS’s need for more doctors is so great that they should be treated differently, well-placed sources have told the Guardian. The rethink should mean that doctors are no longer left unable to take up job offers from hospitals and GP surgeries because they cannot get a visa.
There will now be a separate system to decide which medics come.
Recent official figures show that the NHS in England alone is short of 9,982 doctors. Those refused tier-2 visas in recent months have included GPs, psychiatrists and cancer specialists, all of which have a significant number of vacancies.
Hospitals have said their inability to recruit doctors from outside the EEA would lead to patients facing longer waiting times for treatment and hit patient safety.
Andrew Foster, chief executive of the Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS hospital trust recently condemned the “bonkers decision” to ban doctors whom the NHS desperately needed. “It’s absolutely barmy that one branch of government is trying to increase the capacity of the NHS and another branch is stopping it from doing so”, he said.
“Last year we got 60 doctors and we had no trouble with visas. This year, [during] the first two months we were denied all visas and in the latest round we have been successful in less than 10 cases out of the 100 [they had applied for].”
Hospitals have been unable to hire doctors they had identified as highly skilled and necessary recruits because the cap on the number of professionals given a visa has been reached in each of the last seven months.
The Home Office had made clear that if the rules were to change so they would operate differently in the third quarter of the year, which includes August, when newly-qualified young doctors start their NHS training, any relaxation of the policy had to be agreed by the end of this week.
It is unclear if nurses will also be taken out of the cap system. They are already classed as a shortage occupation by the Home Office’s migration advisory committee. As such some nurses have been deemed a greater priority than doctors in recent months when officials have been deciding who will get tier-2 visas.
Hunt has argued that doctors and nurses should be treated differently to other skilled migrants on a temporary basis, until increases in the numbers of homegrown staff he has instigated produce more British NHS staff.
“If reports that the cap will be lifted for doctors are true, it will be a welcome relief to trusts in addressing immediate staff shortages, to help ensure safe, high quality care,” said Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts in England.
“These visa restrictions have been a major obstacle to recruiting much-needed medical staff. For trusts it has resulted in unfilled vacancies, often filled by paying premium locum rates. For doctors, they may have given up on working in the NHS and decided to work in another country.”