Hundreds more doctors from outside Europe will be available to NHS bosses in Scotland to help ease the recruitment crisis in the biggest relaxation of immigration policy in more than a decade.
The UK government is expected to announce that it is removing NHS workers from the cap on tier-2 skilled worker visas, clearing a bottleneck that has prevented badly-needed doctors and nurses from being recruited to meet growing demand for healthcare.
An additional 8,000 skilled migrants in other professions including IT, engineering and teaching are expected to be allowed to come to the UK each year under the proposals.
It is a significant victory for the new Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who said he would examine the cap following concerns about doctors with job offers in the UK being turned away by immigration authorities.
The reports were welcomed by the British Medical Association (BMA) Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who said “changing the rules to permit more doctors, engineers and other highly skilled professionals entry to the UK is good for the NHS and good for the economy”.
Ms Davidson has stepped up calls on Theresa May to review a controversial net migration target of 100,000 to boost the economy and ease pressure on public services, with Brexit expected to see a significant drop in workers arriving from EU countries. However, Downing Street has so far resisted any demands for a relaxation in immigration policy.
The number of workers from countries outside the European Economic Area allowed into the UK with a tier-2 visa is capped at 20,700 annually, a limit that has repeatedly been breached in every month since December as employers increasingly recruit from outside the EU.
GPs had warned Mr Javid of a “desperate need” for the cap to be lifted amid escalating patient demand and growing shortages of doctors in some roles.
In the three months to March 2018, more than 1,500 visa applications from doctors with job offers in the UK were refused as a result of the cap, according to the British Medical Journal.
The Home Office declined to comment on leaks. The exemption for NHS staff is expected to be time-limited.
The BMA Scotland welcomed the move to help ensure the supply of doctors meets demand. In the past few months, new figures have revealed how NHS Scotland staff have reported concerns about staff shortages 16,600 times in the past four years, while £26 million was paid in overtime to nurses in midwives last year.
Peter Bennie, chairman of the BMA in Scotland, last month met MEPs in Brussels to warn that “cutting off” the supply of EU medics coming to work in Scotland after Brexit will have a “disastrous” impact on the NHS.
BMA Council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said yesterday: “It will be a relief to patients and staff across the NHS that common sense has finally prevailed and the tier-2 visa restrictions on non-EU doctors and nurses are to be lifted. These regulations have prevented thousands of non-EU doctors being allowed to work in the UK to fill empty posts that the health service is unable to fill.
“The NHS has always relied on these highly-skilled, experienced overseas doctors to provide frontline care to patients, and they are needed more than ever at a time when the NHS is under mounting pressure from rising demand, stagnating funding and staff shortages.”
Health Secretary Shona Robison said: “We wrote to Home Office Ministers in April to highlight the difficulties that visa refusals present to public services and businesses, and therefore welcome any proposed changes to policy that would mitigate the negative impact current immigration policies have on Scotland’s needs.”