Junior doctors from outside the European Union are to be barred from specialist training in this country following protests over the shortage of jobs for newly-qualified British medics.
The National Health Service has traditionally relied on staff from developing countries – particularly from southern Asia – to fill vacancies. But the increasing numbers of Britons now applying for postgraduate training are meeting fierce competition from overseas doctors for the 9,000 posts available each year. More than 1,000 British nationals missed out on a place in 2007, so they have no chance of becoming a GP or a consultant.
New immigration rules coming into force next year are likely to lead to a drop of between 3,000 and 5,000 overseas applicants, but will not apply to foreign doctors already working or studying in the UK.
Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, said yesterday: "Doctors from overseas have played an invaluable role in the NHS for many years and will continue to do so. They have helped us fill key skill-shortage areas such as psychiatry, obstetrics, gynaecology and paediatrics. But as the number of UK medical school graduates expands, there should be less need to rely on overseas doctors for these specialties.
"It can cost up to £250,000 to train a UK medical student and, with the increase in UK medical schools, we are moving to a policy of self-sufficiency.
"If UK medical graduates cannot access specialist training because of a large number of applicants from outside Europe, then it is only right that we should consider what needs to be done." He stressed that the new rules applied only to training places and foreign doctors would still be recruited where skill shortages emerged.
The Government estimates that about 10,000 medical graduates from outside the EU are now based in the UK. Most who come to work or train in the NHS do not stay long, with more than half leaving within four years.
But Hamish Meldrum, the leader of the British Medical Association, said: "This is a confusing move, which seems to achieve little apart from adding to the uncertainty for overseas doctors in the NHS. It is hard to see what the Government is trying to do, other than shifting the blame for its own failures of workforce planning on to international medical graduates.
"Our concern is that overseas colleagues already working in the UK are being both scapegoated and sent confusing messages."
Stephen O'Brien, the shadow Health minister, said: "Junior doctors have been badly messed around by this Government, so we are pleased the limit on doctors from outside the EU applying for training places will at least relieve our doctors of some pressure. But this shambolic situation could have been avoided had it not been for the Government's atrocious boom-and-bust approach to workforce planning."
On a visit to India yesterday, Liam Byrne, the Immigration minister, said the points-based immigration system would come into force on 29 February. After that date, skilled foreign workers already in Britain who want to extend their stays must apply under the new system. The scheme will be extended to Indian applicants in April and to the rest of the world in the summer.