A Government drive to bolster the NHS by recruiting senior doctors from overseas is in disarray after foreign specialists turned up their noses at the jobs on offer.

Two schemes aimed at recruiting 1,000 foreign specialists to help run the service have so far lured just 45 doctors into the NHS. But applications from foreign junior doctors to take the registration exam, known as the PLAB test, which allows them to practice in Britain have risen 75 per cent in a year, from 4,600 to over 8,000.

Professor Sir Graeme Catto, president of the General Medical Council which monitors standards of overseas doctors and runs the PLAB test, said: "We have had a few hundred applications from senior doctors and we have been inundated with applications from the training grades. Word has got out that the UK is desperate for doctors and anyone can get a job. They are just the sort we don't want."

Sir Graeme said the US was short of doctors and Canada was about to start recruiting abroad. Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand are also said to be short of doctors. "We are going to have the ludicrous situation where we are all setting up our stall in the back streets of Calcutta," he said.

The shortage of home-grown doctors was highlighted yesterday in the annual census of consultants carried out by the Royal College of Physicians, which showed a sharp slowing in the growth rate from 6.1 per cent a year between 1993 and 2000 to 3.2 per cent in 2000-01. Cuts in working hours under the European working time directive will put further pressure on the service and more than a third of consultants plan to retire in the next 10 years.

Dr Rodney Burnham, the college's director of medical workforce, said: "The problems underlying consultant staffing are causing great problems and are likely to do so for many years. They cannot be solved merely by the injection of new funds."

Last year the Department of Health announced that it had hired Sir Magdi Yacoub, the globe-trotting heart surgeon, to spearhead its overseas recruitment campaign.

Sir Magdi headed an international fellowship scheme intended to attract senior doctors to the UK, with a target of 450 specialists in post in three years. But the scheme has so far brought in 26 senior doctors. None of them is a heart and lung surgeon like Sir Magdi, which was one of the specialties targeted.

Many applicants were not of the quality needed and others turned jobs down once they saw the terms and conditions. A health department source said: "We had difficulty closing the deals."

A separate global scheme which involved an advertising campaign in 11 Western countries has also yielded disappointing results.

About 5,000 doctors expressed interest in working for the NHS, and 665 firm applications were made, but only 19 doctors are in post, all from Spain and Germany.

According to Hospital Doctor, which obtained the figures, only the Royal College of Psychiatrists judged the recruitment exercise a success. Seventeen of the 26 specialists recruited from overseas were psychiatrists.Dan Ash, president of the Royal College of Radiologists, said: "Thousands expressed an interest, hundreds applied, tens were interviewed and single numbers were appointed."