Cancelled PLAB tests delay NHS start date for thousands of overseas doctors

A total of 2,600 overseas doctors will enter the UK workforce later than planned after the GMC cancelled PLAB 2 tests in January and February due to rising COVID-19 cases.

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GMC forced to cancel PLAB tests (Photo: GMC)

The regulator announced on 22 December that it needed to cancel tests booked for the first two months of the year because of pressures on the NHS and the impact on examiner availability.

The GMC has confirmed that over 1,000 doctors have already rescheduled their exam for the summer - and it is working to let some of those already in the UK, or with training or job offers, to sit the test in February.

However, the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO) has warned the decision will disrupt the ‘timely recruitment’ of doctors from abroad and leave many without the financial means to support themselves in the interim.

Overseas doctors

News that thousands of doctors could enter training or jobs later than expected comes as official figures showed general practice lost more than 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs in the past six months.

The GMC says it still expects to offer 15,000 PLAB 2 places this year - the highest ever - and has asked candidates already in the UK, or who have a job offer, to contact them with details of their circumstances and their visa expiry date.

Following a surge of COVID-19 cases in the UK, the GMC's ability to run the PLAB 2 test was heavily affected - with the regulator needing 54 doctors a day to act as examiners. With rising staff absences in the NHS, it said doctors' clinical commitments took priority over tests.

The GMC said exams were cancelled with ‘at least two weeks’ notice’, and that the number of candidates already in the UK was 'much lower' than the total number of exams cancelled. Over 75% of the cohort have already cancelled their dates, while 40% have rebooked. The GMC has offered alternative dates to all candidates for the exam and expects 'all tests' to resume in March. 

PLAB 2

But BAPIO called the delay ‘unacceptable’ and highlighted that, in addition to a potential delay of doctors into the NHS, candidates will have to find a way to support themselves over the next few months without a job.

BAPIO president Dr Ramesh Mehta said: ‘This cancellation of PLAB2 tests not only deprives us of timely recruitment of these valuable doctors, it also causes them significant hardship in a foreign country. I am very concerned about this state of affairs.’

The group's chair Dr JS Bamrah said he was concerned about how the candidates had been treated. ‘Migrant doctors have formed an invaluable part of the NHS workforce. This sort of action by the GMC only serves to give the wrong perception to migrant doctors in this country as well as those who intend to come and serve the NHS.’

Joint secretary Dr Biju Simon, said: ‘The cancellation of GMC examinations is worrying. Many young doctors already sacrificed their time and money to be here in the UK, despite the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. The cancellation of the PLAB tests amplifies the agony adding further psychological torment, and financial deficit.’

Pandemic pressures

Director of registration at the GMC Una Lane, said: ‘We are deeply disappointed to have to cancel exams at this time but given the pressures on the NHS and the impact on examiner availability it was the only viable option. We intend to re-open on a limited basis in February so that we can prioritise those candidates already in the UK or with a job offer or place in training.

‘Doctors from around the world make a huge contribution to our health services and from the very start of the pandemic, we’ve done everything we can to make available to the health service the level of doctors needed to care for patients. This has included investing in new facilities and additional staffing for assessments.’

In 2021, the GMC registered over 12,000 doctors from outside of the UK, and 'in recent months' has registered 250 international medical graduates each week who have already met its standards. It expects to offer 15,000 PLAB 2 places this year.

PLAB 2 exams were cancelled during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 after the regulator’s assessment centre in Spinningfields, Manchester, was forced to close from mid-March to the end of July. Tests were restarted again in August 2020.

For more information on the GMC website about the cancelled PLAB 2 tests click here.

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