Government set to relax restrictions on non-EU doctorsRuth Mabhiza
Exclusive: ministers agree to increase number of doctors allowed to work in UK under medical training initiative
The government is set to relax its immigration rules to let more foreign doctors come to Britain to help tackle the NHS’s widespread shortages of medics, the Guardian can reveal.
Ministers have agreed to significantly expand the 1,500 doctors a year allowed to come and work in Britain under the medical training initiative (MTI). The move could result in the maximum number of non-EU medics able to come rising to as many as 3,000.
The length of time young doctors from outside the EU are able to stay in Britain under the scheme may also rise from two to three years, according to well-placed sources.
The change comes as the government is under pressure to explain how its intention to move to a new immigration system after Brexit, with right of entry dependent on skills, will help alleviate NHS under-staffing.
Ministers believe the NHS-wide shortage of medics is so acute, especially in hospitals, that they have to lift the cap on the number who can come in under the MTI, even at the risk of provoking a row about immigration.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has been lobbying the Home Office over the issue in recent months. He recently wrote to Caroline Nokes, the immigration minister, to suggest the change and has played a key role in making it happen.
Senior doctors with whom Hancock has discussed the issue say he “fully appreciates” the depth of the NHS’s inability to recruit and retain enough medics and the impact it is increasingly having on patient care, for example forcing some A&E units to close temporarily or permanently.
The move is likely to be unveiled in the NHS long-term plan, due out in mid-December, soon after the “meaningful vote” by MPs on Brexit on 11 December. It will set out how the service in England sees its key priorities for the next decade and how it will spend the extra £20.5bn a year in funding it is due to receive by 2023-24.
The NHS in England is short of 9,337 doctors, according to the latest official figures on staffing, which were published on Thursday by the regulator NHS Improvement. Although that is down from the 11,616 vacancies it had three months ago NHS bosses say that staffing problems remain their biggest headache and are compromising the quality of care they can provide.
Ministers have been persuaded that expanding the MTI will not prompt a backlash because doctors coming to Britain that way do not count towards the immigration total. That is because the MTI counts as an exchange scheme that shares knowledge, experience and best practice.
The young doctors are trainees who spend two years learning from an NHS consultant, and help fill medical rotas in hospitals, before returning to their home countries, which benefit from their enhanced skills.
Health Education England, the NHS body in charge of the education and training of health service staff, supports boosting MTI numbers. Medical groups, including the Royal College of Physicians, have also been lobbying ministers to approve the change.
“There are huge workforce shortages across the NHS, and we will need to rely on international doctors to help us deliver services, to complement our homegrown talent and the expansion of medical schools.
“Our hope is that there will be continued support within the NHS long-term plan and immigration white paper for the MTI, especially in the face of enormous pressures on overstretched teams,” Mortimer added.
The scheme is administered by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, which represents the professional interests of the UK’s 240,000 doctors.
“We don’t know what’s in the long-term plan, but if this increase is true, it’s good news. The academy has long argued for an increase in the number of MTI doctors who can contribute to the NHS as they come to the UK to expand their training,” said Prof Carrie MacEwen, its chair.
“The MTI scheme is a win all round. An increase in international trainees will help alleviate the pressures on the frontline in the NHS,” she added.
A government spokesperson praised the MTI but refused to answer questions about its planned expansion. “This government welcomes the role of the MTI in allowing overseas medical staff the chance to train in the UK, observe clinical practice and to learn vital skills. While they are training in the UK, these international doctors gain state-of-the art skills and experience, which they can take back and use to benefit healthcare globally.
“We are absolutely clear that these roles are not designed to fill substantive vacancies, but offer a valuable training opportunity for doctors from overseas. As with the other government authorised exchange schemes, the MTI scheme is subject to regular review to ensure it continues to meet its aims and those of the immigration system.”
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