From 1 April, a single national performers list held by the NHS Commissioning Board will replace separate lists currently held by individual PCTs. The DH has said that to be accepted onto the list 'every GP will have to demonstrate their ability to speak English'.
The DH is also seeking to introduce tougher powers for the GMC to refuse to register doctors to work in the UK if there are doubts about their English language skills.
Ministers have been under pressure to toughen up checks on doctors since German locum Dr Daniel Ubani accidentally killed a patient on his first UK shift in 2008.
Overseas doctors from outside the European Union (EU) face language testing under current arrangements, but EU law means the medical qualifications of doctors from other countries in the European Economic Area must be recognised in the UK, and they must be registered to work in the NHS.
But the DH has said that a national performers list will protect patients because it will ensure poor performers will no longer be able to slip through gaps between different local lists - with some PCTs routinely checking language skills and others not doing so.
From 2014, the government plans to change the responsible officer regulations to enable the GMC to undertake language checks during the registration process and to sanction doctors when problems with language skills arise after they have been registered.
Responsible officers will have an explicit duty to ensure that any doctor employed within a hospital or GP practice can speak the necessary level of English to perform their job in a safe and competent manner before they can treat patients, the DH said.
Health minister Dr Dan Poulter said: ‘Patients should be able to understand and be understood by their doctor if we are to give them the best care they deserve.
‘These new checks will ensure that all doctors who want to work in the NHS can speak proficient English and to prevent those who can’t from treating patients.
A consultation on the new proposed powers for the GMC will be launched later this year.
GMC chief executive, Niall Dickson, said: ‘This is good news for patients. The health minister's announcement today will help strengthen patient safety across the UK.
‘Our position is clear, patients must be confident that the doctor who treats them has the right communications skills to do the job.
The government is currently working to negotiate a revision of EU law so that tougher mandatory checks can be applied to all European doctors when they apply to work in the UK. The DH said it hopes to have an agreement on a revised directive this autumn.