Doubts over skills of doctors from new EU states

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Plans to hire thousands of Eastern European doctors, dentists and nurses to work in the NHS are in disarray because of doubts about their professional skills, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Plans to hire thousands of Eastern European doctors, dentists and nurses to work in the NHS are in disarray because of doubts about their professional skills, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Ministers had hoped that the staffing crisis affecting the health service could be partly solved when the European Union expands in two weeks to include 10 new members.

The NHS has 25,000 nursing vacancies and recruitment agencies are preparing to hire from the largest new EU members, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, to meet demand.

But the UK's 10 most powerful medical regulators, led by the General Medical Council, claim they will have no way of knowing whether doctors and nurses from those countries are properly qualified.

Until now, medics from the EU accession countries have been required to sit English-language and professional skills exams. After enlargement on 1 May, they will automatically be regarded as meeting basic EU standards - even though the European Commission has no proof this is the case. The loophole is embarrassing for ministers desperate to sell the benefits to Britain of an enlarged EU.

Tony Blair has ordered a government-wide push to try to win back the initiative on the issue. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, launches a White Paper in the Commons tomorrow spelling out the advantages to Britain of EU enlargement.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "It is for the regulatory bodies to ensure the medical staff from abroad are properly qualified. We will do what we can to help them work with the European Commission to meet this challenge."

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