Nurses must continue to be on the national shortage occupation list and exempt from immigration controls, while the government should set out plans to increase domestic nurse training places, according to a report by the Commons’ home affairs select committee.
The committee welcomed the recent intervention by the home secretary to place nurses on the list, which means it is now easier for employers to recruit from outside the European Union and parts of Scandinavia.
It said there could have been “immense consequences” throughout the NHS if this decision had not been taken, leaving thousands of unfilled nursing vacancies going into winter.
“It is clear to see that the [immigration cap] system could have caused a crisis in the NHS this winter…Nurses should remain on the shortage occupation list”
However, it noted this was only a temporary measure and that the decision will be reviewed by February 2016 when the Migration Advisory Committee will report back to the home secretary with recommendations.
By being placed on the list, nurses are exempt from a cap which restricts the number of general visas to 20,700 a year across all professions.
Over the summer, a number of trusts and the NHS Employers organisation wrote to the home secretary saying the cap meant overseas nurses were being refused visas.
This was due to a prioritisation of higher salary applicants which comes into effect once the cap is under pressure - which in June meant a minimum salary of £46,000 was required for a visa, according to the committee.
”A consensus has formed across the health service that cutting the supply of overseas nurses risks patient care”
In its report published on Friday, the select committee said it would support a decision for nurses to remain on the list.
It added: “One of the aims of the cap is to incentivise training and recruitment of domestically trained nurses.
“We ask the government, in its response to this report, to set out its plans to increase the number of nurse training places available, and confirm whether nurses will remain on the shortage occupation list until such time as the number of domestically trained nurses reaches the Department of Health’s target.”
The committee also said it was pleased the decision to place nurses on the list meant they were also now exempt from rules which could risk them being forced to leave the country if they did not earn £35,000 after five years.
Overall, in its report about skill shortages, the committee concluded the government’s immigration cap which restricts general visas to 20,700 a year “does not fit” and “may even be counter-productive”.
It claimed the cap was having no effect on bringing down net migration, due to the amount of people entering the UK every year being hundreds of thousands.
“When the cap was reached earlier this year, we saw the perverse effects of the system, as the cap prioritises higher paid jobs. In June, nurses were being prevented from working in the UK, which necessitated the government taking emergency measures to allow recruitment to continue,” said committee chair Keith Vaz.
“Whilst this was a very welcome move, it is clear to see that the system could have caused a crisis in the NHS this winter. A system which encourages panicked adjustments to be functional is not fit for purpose. Nurses should remain on the shortage occupation list,” he said.
Responding, the Royal College of Nursing said the report recognised the nursing shortage was not a short term issue.
Janet Davies, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said: “Since the RCN first raised this issue and lobbied for a change to the immigration rules, a consensus has formed across the health service that cutting the supply of overseas nurses risks patient care.
“The health service must now have a long-term workforce strategy to ensure the UK has enough nurses to cope with rising demand now and in the future. Anything less would be failing patients.”
Danny Mortimer, chief Executive of NHS Employers, echoed the RCN’s comments, adding: “The health and social care sector is experiencing unprecedented demand on services and this has a direct impact on the need for skilled clinical staff to be employed to deliver care to patients.
“Nursing needs to be on the shortage occupation list on a more permanent basis and be more responsive to changing needs in demand.”