Overseas doctors lured to Britain to help save the NHS are running into bureaucracy when they arrive, leaving them unable to work as hospital waiting lists lengthen.

Foreign doctors appointed to hospital posts are being prevented from taking up the jobs by Home Office delays in issuing work permits.

A consultant neurologist from Libya appointed to a post at the North Staffordshire Hospital NHS Trust in Stoke-on-Trent from 1 January is still "twiddling her thumbs" more than two months later, while waiting for the Home Office to issue her with a permit. Doctors at the trust estimate at least a dozen patients a week are having appointments cancelled while the post remains unfilled.

Heba al-Zawawi, 42, won the job in open competition in mid-December. But when she contacted the Home Office's immigration department in Croydon, south London, she was told there was an 8-12 week wait for a permit.

"I asked them, 'Was there not a priority for NHS staff?' I was told the only priority was if I wanted my passport back to travel home. They said they didn't recognise any other priority because there were so many other people in the same boat. There were many others who were doctors, they said."

Last week, the Government stepped up its recruitment campaign by dispatching the heart transplant pioneer Sir Magdi Yacoub on a global search for 450 consultants. Sir Magdi will offer consultants deals worth up to £100,000 a year. Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, has set a target of 1,000 doctors and 2,000 nurses to be found abroad.

The British Medical Association, which has an international department to assist overseas doctors, said the Home Office was "extremely slow" at dealing with cases involving work permits. A spokesman said: "It seems ridiculous this process takes so long at a time when the NHS desperately needs more doctors and the Government is actively recruiting abroad."

Dr al-Zawawi, who worked in Britain in 1987-94 after qualifying as a doctor in Libya, is a member of the Royal College of Physicians and the BMA and speaks fluent English. Since 1 January she has been going to the neurology department of North Staffordshire Hospital every day, but is forbidden from working by law and has been living on her savings.

She said that as a Muslim she normally shunned publicity, but had decided to speak out because of her embarrassment at inconveniencing the NHS. "The people who employed me have suffered by giving me this job. I have always felt the NHS was a model for other countries. I hate to see this happen."

Simon Ellis, clinical director of neurosciences at North Staffordshire Hospital, said he had written to the Home Office on 2 January and to Alan Milburn on 4 January but had received no reply.

He said: "She has kindly come all the way from Libya to get more experience and to help the NHS and she cannot work. This is not isolated. The Home Office have a pile of people who are not being processed because of bureaucratic incompetence. There is a lack of joined-up government and it's embarrassing."

A spokesman for the Home Office said: "The vast majority of applicants for medical posts would have come by another route, after applying for a work permit in their home country."

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