The number of unfilled job vacancies in the NHS makes for worrying reading. At present, there are 106,000 vacancies within NHS England, including more than 44,000 just for nursing positions. Unfortunately, this pattern is likely to get worse due to the present headwinds being faced by the UK.
As we count down the months to the UK’s full departure from the European Union (EU), many are looking with keen interest to understand the shape of the future immigration system. As free movement from the EU comes to an end, a new points-based system is being architected by the Home Office to replace the flow of skilled workers from the continent. Part of this new system was revealed in November 2019 before the UK election in December 2019 when Boris Johnson unveiled a new “NHS visa” to enable the recruitment of doctors, nurses, and other clinical healthcare staff.
When announcing the new visa, the current Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock stated “this new visa will make it easier for us to hire the finest doctors and nurses from other nations to come and work in the NHS”. On the importance of allowing skilled healthcare staff to come to the UK, Home Secretary, Priti Patel explained, “these measures are part of our plan for an Australian-style points-based immigration system that allows us to control numbers while remaining open to vital professions like nurses. That means the best of both worlds attracting talent from around the world so our NHS continues to provide brilliant service while ensuring that it isn't put under strain by opening Britain's borders to the entire world”.
The Home Office is still to clarify the full details of the new NHS visa scheme which will come in to place in January 2021. The cost of the visa will be £464, which is half of the normal £928 fee. It has also been confirmed that applicants will be guaranteed a decision on their case within 14 days. Under the new scheme, the Home Office has stated that it will award extra points under the points-based system (PBS) and there will be no limit on the number of visas available.
From the information currently available, it is also understood that the immigration health surcharge can be repaid directly through wages if the cost is not already being covered by the employer. This may not apply, however, as on 21st May 2020, it was announced by the Government that the Prime Minister has requested that the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care remove the £624 NHS surcharge for health and care workers from overseas.
In terms of the minimum income requirement, applicants for the new NHS visa will not be required to meet the £30,000 threshold required for the tier 2 (general) visa.
Related Article: ‘Boris Johnson Scraps Health Surcharge Fee for Migrant NHS Workers’
This is the million-dollar question and it will be for prospective skilled healthcare migrants from within the EU and around the world to determine whether the new scheme makes making the move to the UK worthwhile. Some sources believe that while some aspects of the newly proposed scheme are useful, others are less so. The reduced fee will be welcomed by many, but nevertheless, the fee for a family will still be extremely high. In addition, the sped-up decision-making process may not be as groundbreaking as it first appears, especially given that the premium application service can already be used to provide an answer within one week at a cost of £220 (the current fee for the optional premium service outside of the UK for ‘Priority visa service - non-settlement’).
At the time of the announcement, the repayment scheme for the healthcare surcharge drew some criticism with many taking the view that this fee should not apply. It can only be hoped that the Prime Minsters promise to remove the surcharge will be honoured when the new NHS visa comes into force in January 2021.
Labour’s shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, has been scathing of the new scheme; “This policy is full of holes, with nothing to say about the nurses earning below their income threshold, as well as all the cooks, cleaners, hospital porters and others who are vital to hospitals, and nothing at all about their right to bring family members here….Labour's immigration policy is rational and fair and will prioritise attracting the people we need, and treat them as human beings”. This comment very much gets to the heart of one of the main criticisms of the proposed NHS visa. The NHS is reliant on far more than frontline clinical staff. There is a small army of administrative, secretarial, records management, facilities management, logistics, cleaning, and other staff who are essential to the NHS. The importance of such staff to the NHS has been brought into sharp relief during the COVID-19 crisis. As such, greater clarity is needed from the government as to how non-clinical roles will be filled across the NHS and whether they will be afforded the same benefits as being offered under the new NHS visa scheme.
There is simply not enough firm information on the new NHS visa to fully understand how it will work in real terms, and whether it will carry sufficient weight to ensure the NHS has enough staff to keep it moving. Furthermore, COVID-19, which was not on the horizon when this new visa was announced in November 2019, will have changed the NHS staffing landscape in new ways which will need to be addressed (especially if COVID-19 is still ongoing next year). NHS trusts will need more information in the coming months to allow them to plan and put in place the systems and processes necessary to recruit overseas staff. It is clearly a step in the right direction, but whether they are baby steps rather than giant steps remains to be seen.
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