More nurses and doctors from outside the European Union will be able to work in the NHS, after a government decision to exclude them from the cap on skilled workers.
There will be no restriction on the numbers of doctors and nurses who can be employed through the tier 2 visa route under new immigration rules to be laid before parliament tomorrow.
”Doctors and nurses play a vital role in society and at this time we need more in the UK”
The tier 2 visa route, which applies to non-EU workers, has had an annual cap of 20,700 since 2011 when Theresa May was home secretary.
Before December 2017, the cap, which was set on the advice of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), had only been reached on one occasion, the Home Office said.
But in recent months the number of applications has exceeded the monthly allocation of available places with the demand largely driven by the NHS, which accounts for around 40% of all tier 2 places.
At the end of March there were over 35,000 nursing vacancies in England’s NHS, according to a report by regulator NHS Improvement.
Home secretary Sajid Javid said: “I recognise the pressures faced by the NHS and other sectors in recent months. Doctors and nurses play a vital role in society and at this time we need more in the UK.”
“Today the government has woken up to the vital contribution international nurses make”
Health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt said overseas staff had been a key part of the NHS since its creation:
“Today’s news sends a clear message to nurses and doctors from around the world that the NHS welcomes and values their skills and dedication. It’s fantastic that patients will now benefit from the care of thousands more talented staff,” he said.
Mr Hunt said the new visa approach would go hand in hand with long-term measures to increase the supply of domestic doctors, including increasing the number of training places.
He added: “This builds on steps we have already taken to make sure the NHS has the staff it needs for the future – boosting training places for home-grown doctors and nurses by 25% and giving over a million NHS employees a well-deserved pay rise.”
Stephanie Aiken, deputy director of nursing at the Royal College of Nursing, welcomed the change. “Today the government has woken up to the vital contribution international nurses make to our health and social care sector,” she said.
“The UK has long depended on professionals from around the world to plug staff shortages at home,” she said. “Patient demand is rising and we will continue to rely on this important source of expertise.”
“The lifting of the cap for doctors and nurses will ease the immediate problems, and that is welcome”
But Ms Aiken said a more comprehensive approach to workforce planning was needed. “This is only one piece of the puzzle, staffing shortages are leaving patient care increasingly unsafe,” she said.
“The government must develop a comprehensive and costed workforce plan which grows the workforce in line with population health and care needs, including incentivising more UK nationals into the profession,” she said.
The government’s change of tack was a “huge relief” for trusts, said Phillippa Hentsch, head of analysis at NHS Providers.
“Recruitment problems caused by the cap have resulted in rota gaps, often filled by paying premium locum rates,” she said. “That is not good for continuity of care for patients, or for trusts’ finances.
“The lifting of the cap for doctors and nurses will ease the immediate problems, and that is welcome, but it is just a first step in addressing the wider workforce challenges we face,” she said.
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In the longer-term, training needed to be expanded and the draft workforce strategy published by Health Education England was a “constructive” start to that process.
“But the plans will take time to deliver, so the NHS needs to be supported to recruit from overseas for the foreseeable future,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party called it a “welcome U-Turn” by the government. “Labour has consistently questioned the logic of turning away qualified medical professionals from an NHS with thousands of vacancies,” said Diane Abbott MP, Labour’s shadow home secretary.
But pressure group Migration Watch rejected the visa change. It said that there were three to four applicants for every advertised vacancy for doctors and nurses in NHS England.
“There are huge numbers of capable people here who are keen for a career in healthcare,” said Alp Mehmet, the group’s vice chair. “Let’s invest more in them rather than rely on recruiting doctors and nurses from countries whose needs far outweigh our own.”