The NHS is to be able to recruit thousands more medical staff from abroad, after the Government announced a relaxation on visas.
Doctors and nurses are to be excluded from the cap on so-called “Tier 2” visas for skilled workers from non-EU countries, imposed by Theresa May when she was home secretary.
The visa limit has been set at 20,700 a year since 2011, with around 40% of places accounted for by the NHS. But recent months have regularly seen demand outstrip supply, driven in large part by the under-pressure health service.
Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: “I recognise the pressures faced by the NHS and other sectors in recent months. Doctors and nurses play a vital role in society and at this time we need more in the UK. That is why I have reviewed our skilled worker visa route.
“This is about finding a solution to increased demand and to support our essential national services.”
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the move would “send a clear message to nurses and doctors from around the world that the NHS welcomes and values their skills and dedication”, adding: “It’s fantastic that patients will now benefit from the care of thousands more talented staff.”
Downing Street confirmed the change would come into effect immediately after new regulations are tabled on Friday.
Future numbers of visas for non-EU medics would be dictated by “the requirements of the NHS”, and it will be for health managers to determine how many are needed.
The removal of doctors and nurses from the Tier Two total will have the knock-on effect of freeing up hundreds of places each month for other professions, including engineers, IT professionals and teachers.
Number 10 played down suggestions that the Government was moving away from its target to get annual net migration below 100,000, stressing that the Prime Minister remains committed to reducing the number to “sustainable” levels.
“Net migration is falling,” said Mrs May’s official spokesman.
“We remain absolutely committed to bringing it down to sustainable levels.
“There has been a particular demand in this area and we are responding to this demand as part of our long-term plan for the NHS.”
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said the announcement would be a “much-needed victory for common sense and patient care”.
Earlier this month, chairwoman Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard urged Mr Javid to relax immigration rules, warning there were concerning cases where foreign GPs had been affected by the “hostile environment” policies first brought in by Mrs May.
The British Medical Journal has said that between December 2017 and March 2018 more than 1,500 visa applications from doctors with job offers in the UK were refused as a result of the cap on workers from outside the European Economic Area.
Prof Stokes-Lampard said: “While we await the details of the Home Secretary’s expected announcement, lifting the cap of tier two visas for doctors and nurses wanting to work in the NHS would be a fantastic and much-needed victory for common sense and patient care, and something that the college, along with organisations across medicine, has been pushing hard for.”
She added: “The NHS, general practice included, has long been supported by the skills and hard work of doctors and other healthcare professionals from overseas.
Overseas doctors make an invaluable contribution to our health service and, at a time when there are thousands of unfilled vacancies within the NHS, it is absurd that the Government should stop experienced and talented healthcare professionals coming to work here and provide much-needed care for patients
“Mindful of similar pressures in other countries, we would welcome any appropriately-trained doctor who wants to work in UK general practice to help us deliver care to over one million patients a day.”
The BMA said a change in the rules would “be welcome relief to doctors and patients, who have witnessed first hand the damage that this policy has caused”.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chairman, said: “Overseas doctors make an invaluable contribution to our health service and, at a time when there are thousands of unfilled vacancies within the NHS, it is absurd that the Government should stop experienced and talented healthcare professionals coming to work here and provide much-needed care for patients.”
The chairwoman of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, Labour MP Yvette Cooper, said: “This is the right decision. For months doctors and nurses the NHS needs have been turned away – including over 1,500 doctors with job offers already.
“But there are now so many problems with the immigration system, the Home Secretary must not stop here. The net migration target regime just isn’t working and should be replaced – including by removing students from the target straight away.”
The immigration policy director at business lobby group London First, Mark Hilton, described the decision as “a step in the right direction”, but added: “It’s time for Government to accept that arbitrary caps and targets don’t work.”