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Relaxing immigration rules is a start, but more work is needed to address workforce shortages

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Government plans to relax immigration rules for non-EU skilled workers, allowing more nurses and doctors into the UK, have come as welcome news this week. 

The immigration cap, which limits the number of visas issued to non-EU skilled workers to 20,700 a year has been identified repeatedly as a barrier to recruiting enough health professionals, including nurses, by blocking potential overseas candidates.

The announcement from the Home Office comes when workforce shortages are the biggest problem facing the health service.

It remains to be seen what effect the move might have on nursing numbers, but it could be a sign that the government is finally starting to listen to the concerns of health professionals. However, some may wonder why it has taken so long to respond to the issue.

More widely, adjusting the cap on people entering the UK will not end workforce shortages in the NHS; many other factors need to be addressed to solve this complex problem.

One of these other factors is money, which also made the headlines this week, with speculation that the government will shortly announce plans to increase NHS funding. The Times reported earlier this week that the chancellor Phillip Hammond is to propose raising up to £10bn in extra tax to help fund the NHS, against the backdrop of services facing a funding gap of £20bn by 2022.

“Any direct action to alleviate pressures on the NHS is welcome”

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is said to be seeking a 4% real-terms annual increase in funding, with a view to tackling the growing workforce shortages in nursing and other health professions. However, even that would leave a significant shortfall compared with previous levels of spending and growth.

Any direct action to alleviate pressures on the NHS is welcome – and it is clear the government wants to use this opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the service. But these measures come very late in the day. The government is responding to problems that are largely of its own making, rather than preventing them in the first place.

“It would be refreshing to hear some credible long-term plans for funding the NHS”

Late last year, organisations representing a number of health professions predicted the looming NHS winter crisis, commenting that their warnings were not being heeded. Fast forward a few months, and the NHS experienced the worst winter crisis on record, followed by the inevitable apologies from cabinet over the failure to prepare for it.

It would be refreshing to hear some credible long-term plans for funding the NHS. It would also be nice to see professional organisations being taken seriously and responded to quickly when they raise concerns, rather than months later and after they have dealt with the consequences of the very things they predicted.

A measured and calculated approach to long-term funding, with cross-party support, would be a welcome change to the fruitless posturing between the political parties that too often dominates any discussion around the NHS – and achieves little.

The fact that the government appears to be taking action to address funding and workforce issues is certainly a positive step, but it still has much more to do to resolve this crisis.

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