Immigration controls on nurses working in the UK will be relaxed immediately after an intervention by the home secretary, it has been revealed.
Theresa May has today written to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) asking it to place nursing on the shortage occupation list and to carry out a review over whether this should continue in the long term.
This will mean nurses from countries outise the European Economic Area – comprising the European Union and parts of Scandinavia – will no longer run the risk of having their visas rejected, while overseas nurses earning less than £35,000 a year who have been in the UK for six years will not have to leave the country from April 2016.
The change follows increasing concern from NHS providers and national officials that non-European Union nurse visas have been refused because of immigration restrictions.
In a statement, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “Safe staffing across all our hospitals and care homes is a crucial priority.
“The temporary changes announced today will ensure the NHS has the nurses it needs to deliver the highest standards of care without having to rely on rip-off staffing agencies that cost the taxpayer billions of pounds a year,” he said.
Mr Hunt added: “There are already more than 8,000 additional nurses on our wards since 2010 and we are investing in our future workforce with a record 50,000 nurses currently in training.”
“The temporary changes announced today will ensure the NHS has the nurses it needs to deliver the highest standards of care”
Without the change announced today non-EU nurses would continue to join the general pool of non-EU visa applicants hoping to receive one of the 20,700 visas available each year.
Both the Royal College of Nursing and the NHS Employers organisation have lobbied the Home Office and Department of Health over the immigration rules.
In a letter to Ms May last month, NHS Employers chief executive Danny Mortimer said immigration controls were “hindering our ability to provide the right number of staff on our wards to deliver high quality care to our patients”.
- Nurse immigration policy needs ‘rethink’, says NHS boss
- Trust chiefs warn visa rules causing nurse recruitment problems
- Executive nurse group warns about immigration rules threat
Approximately 750 visa applications a month are thought to have been refused for non-EU nurses during recent months as NHS trusts try to bolster their staffing levels with overseas recruitment.
The NHS is struggling with a national shortage of nurses following increased demand prompted by the 2013 Francis inquiry. Demand for qualified nurses increased by 21,000 in just 12 months last year.
“We are delighted with this positive announcement that nurses are to be included on the shortage occupation list as an interim measure”
As previously reported by Nursing Times, there are concerns that some NHS nurses have resigned from their jobs to work in the private sector to avoid the £35,000 cutoff that would force them to leave the country.
Earlier this month, Central Manchester Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which had planned to recruit 275 nurses from India, said it ran into delays caused by “pre-employment and migration processes”.
- Migration rules derail major nurse recruitment plans
- Manchester FT recruits 270 nurses from India to plug gaps
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens criticised the rules in a speech last week. He said the rules needed a “rethink” and the UK needed to “better join the dots” between immigration policy and the NHS.
Responding to today’s move, the Royal College of Nursing described it as a “real victory for nurses”.
“This reversal is a real victory for nurses, the health service and most of all patients”
Janet Davies, RCN chief executive and general secretary, 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 risked patient care.
“The government must now extend this common sense approach to the issue of training and retaining more nurses in the long-term and significantly increasing student nurse training places so that patients in the UK are no longer at the mercy of global workforce trends.”
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: “At long last, the government has realised just how much the NHS relies on its migrant nurses.
“Current staffing levels are too low in too many areas,” he said. “Sending back thousands of qualified dedicated nurses overseas would have left our health service in a dire situation.
“While this is good news, it is essential to the service that nurses remain on the shortage list for the foreseeable future,” he added.
“The recruitment and retention of a good nursing workforce is essential for providers to deliver the high quality care that is needed and expected”
NHS Employers chief executive Danny Mortimer said: “We are delighted with this positive announcement that nurses are to be included on the shortage occupation list as an interim measure.
“We know employers across England will welcome this support from the government for their efforts to deliver safe services this winter, and to also reduce their reliance on more expensive agency staff,” he said.
“We will continue our focused work with the NHS and our colleagues in wider health and social care provision to ensure that MAC receive robust evidence to enable nursing to remain on the list of shortage occupations,” he added.
Jane Cummings, chief nursing officer for England, said: “Last week Simon Stevens called on government to urgently rethink counterproductive restrictions on the NHS’ ability to recruit nurses internationally, and today we welcome this outbreak of common sense.
“Nurses and other health professionals from overseas have always played an important role in our NHS – this change means that we can recruit and no longer face the potential loss of some of our most experienced and committed nurses.”
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said: “The independent sector faces a severe shortage of nurses and this announcement is an extremely positive one. The recruitment and retention of a good nursing workforce is essential for providers to deliver the high quality care that is needed and expected.”