Hundreds of overseas-born trainee GPs are at risk of deportation because of “nonsensical” immigration rules, the profession’s leader has warned Priti Patel.
The NHS risks losing much-needed family doctors unless visa regulations are overhauled to allow young medics to stay in Britain at the end of their GP training, Prof Martin Marshall said.
Marshall, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, has written to Patel, the home secretary, demanding that she scrap “bureaucratic” hurdles affecting would-be GPs from abroad.
He told the Guardian: “At a time when general practice is experiencing the most severe workload pressures it has ever known, it is nonsensical that the NHS is going to the expense of training hundreds of GPs each year who then face potential deportation by the Home Office because of an entirely avoidable visa issue.
“We cannot afford to lose this expertise and willingness to work in the NHS, delivering care to patients, due to red tape.”
The threat to foreign-born GP trainees has arisen because current immigration rules state that “international medical graduates” (IMGs) can be given indefinite leave to remain only after they have been in the country for five years, but GP training lasts for only three years.
The government spends £50,000 a year paying the costs of each would-be GP’s training.
GP leaders say that a chronic and worsening shortage of family doctors is a key reason why surgeries find it hard to give patients the speedy access many want. In 2019 Boris Johnson promised to expand the number of GPs in England by 6,000 by 2024. But Sajid Javid, the health secretary, admitted last year that the pledge was likely to be broken.
IMGs are particularly important in the drive to boost GP numbers because they made up 47% of the 3,793 young doctors who began training as GPs last year. GPs who have completed their training must then find an NHS sponsor to allow them to continue working in the UK. However, only a few GP surgeries are licensed by the Home Office to be sponsors.
“These bureaucratic immigration rules are not fit for purpose and need to be updated to accommodate the needs of people who are qualified and willing to work in general practice,” added Marshall. “As things stand these rules are damaging for the NHS.”
Dr Chandra Kanneganti, the president of the British Association of International Doctors, said over the past five years he had sponsored nine IMGs from Nigeria, Pakistan and India to start their careers at the two GP practices he runs in Stoke-on-Trent.
“The current system makes no sense,” added Kanneganti, who is also a Conservative councillor in and the current lord mayor of Stoke. “We are losing valuable GPs because of these complex visa problems, rather than making it easy for them [to stay].
“If ministers really want to recruit 6,000 more GPs, they need to act without delay to let these doctors stay and make their careers here.”
A GP trainee in Southampton, who is from Pakistan, is considering whether she should abandon her plan to become a family doctor and instead take a job as a hospital doctor, as trainee medics from overseas find it much easier to get sponsored by a hospital than a GP practice.
“I’m currently looking for job opportunities for when I complete my training, which I hope to do later this year,” she said. “But I need a tier 2 visa to be able to stay and working in the NHS, which I really want to do.”
“I love being a GP here, even though it’s such a hard job. The uncertainty of not knowing whether I’ll be able to stay working in my training practice, or whether I’ll need to find another job and whether I’ll be able to do that in time is stressful.”
The Home Office has been approached for comment.