New visa rules mean foreign doctors will leave health service, says BMA

NHS already facing risk of a workforce crisis as junior doctors in England consider the new contract imposed on them

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The NHS could be starved of doctors from overseas because of proposed new visa rules that would leave them “last in line” for specialist jobs, the British Medical Association has warned.

Reforms aimed at making it harder for businesses to recruit from overseas, overlooking British workers, could have “a series of unintended and harmful” consequences for the health service, the medical union said.

In a letter to the immigration minister James Brokenshire, seen by The Independent, BMA chief Dr Mark Porter said the changes, recommended by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), could have a “devastating impact” on the 500 overseas medics who graduate from UK medical schools each year.

The NHS is already facing the risk of a workforce crisis as junior doctors in England consider the new contract imposed on them by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Many have indicated they may leave the NHS rather than work under the new conditions. The BMA said the proposed changes to visa rules could also harm the Government’s plan to implement seven-day services, and to recruit 5,000 more GPs by 2020. 

Recommendations from the MAC in a report last month, if drafted into law, would mean that international graduates from UK medical schools would now be subject to the Resident Labour Market Test when applying for a medical specialty. This means they would only be eligible to take part in the second round of applications for specialist training posts, when most have already been filled by UK and EU citizens.

Overseas doctors have told the BMA the proposed changes would make it much harder for them to pursue their chosen career path in the NHS. Many would leave the UK to pursue their career ambitions elsewhere, the doctors’ union said.

Junior doctors' contract explained

Further proposed changes, which would increase the minimum salary requirement for a tier 2 visa – the type assigned to overseas doctors training for a specialty – to £30,000, could penalise medics who want to work part-time in order to raise children, act as a carer, or study.   

Between August 2014 and August 2015, 3,602 doctors were granted tier 2 visas to work in the UK.

“The MAC’s recommendations are causing great anxiety amongst our members who are facing considerable uncertainty about their future medical careers in the UK,”  the BMA’s letter to Mr Brokenshire states.

Dr Porter told The Independent: “What these recommendations propose is that students from overseas who have obtained a UK medical degree will be left until last in line to get a job.

“This will very likely leave them unable to pursue a career in the specialty they wish to work in, and leave them with little option but to take their much-needed medical training and expertise to another country’s health service where they are able to continue their training.

“This would be a completely obstructive move at a time when the NHS is facing unprecedented pressure and huge staff shortages.”

Around 7.5 per cent of all graduates from UK medical schools are from overseas. International students pay between £25,000 and £40,000 a year in fees, so any measures that discourage doctors from training and working in Britain could also hit universities’ incomes. 

The BMA is also concerned that a new levy of £1,000 for organisations that employ skilled migrants from outside the EU could cost the NHS up £3.5m a year.

Dr Porter has requested a meeting with Mr Brokenshire, with a view to securing specific exemptions for the NHS in any changes to visa rules.

A Home Office spokesperson said that no decisions had been taken on implementing the MAC’s recommendation. In October last year, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, temporarily suspended recruitment restrictions for nurses from outside the EU following warnings of staffing shortages.

“We are grateful to the Migration Advisory Committee for its report,” a Home Office spokesperson said. “We are considering its findings and will respond in due course.”