Home Office accuses RCGP of 'scaremongering' over visa threat to GP workforce

Fears that international medical graduates who complete UK GP training could be lost to the NHS have been dismissed as 'needless scaremongering' by the Home Office.

Home Office sign
(Photo: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall wrote to home secretary Priti Patel warning that international medical graduates (IMGs) who complete three-year GP training in the UK 'face significant bureaucracy if they wish to remain in UK general practice after completing training, putting both their contributions and the NHS's investment at risk'.

The college chair argued that IMGs who complete UK GP training should be offered automatic indefinite leave to remain - and that until this can be put in place, visas should be extended to three months beyond the date when they complete training.

GPonline reported earlier this month that almost half of doctors who began UK GP training in 2021/22 were IMGs - and could struggle to work in the NHS after they complete training because the vast majority of GP practices are not set up as 'visa sponsors'.

GP trainees

GP representatives at the UK LMCs conference also warned that the NHS risked losing swathes of exceptional colleagues at a time when general practice is desperate to bolster its workforce because doctors who come through GP training are not guaranteed to be able to stay in the country.

The RCGP letter explained that GPs were 'disadvantaged compared to doctors working in other medical specialties' because IMGs can only apply for indefinite leave to remain after five years in the UK. Training in other specialties lasts five years, compared with three for general practice - creating a 'significant administrative challenge' that can leave doctors 'feeling undervalued or anxious about their future in the UK' despite having completed UK GP training.

The college warned that 'hundreds of GPs' need support each year to find practices able to act as visa sponsors - and called for all doctors completing GP training who need it to be offered indefinite leave to remain.

Professor Marshall wrote: 'I am happy to meet with you to discuss these proposals further and any solutions that you may have. International medical graduates are a key part of the UK's GP workforce, and it is vital that we act now to support these doctors to remain in UK general practice for the long term.'

Overseas workers

However, a Home Office spokesperson said: 'This is needless scaremongering. Workers from overseas make an invaluable contribution to our NHS, helping to keep vital services running and save lives.

'Trainee GPs may use time between the end of their training and the end of their visa to look and apply for work.'

But British International Doctors Association president Dr Chandra Kanneganti, a GP in Stoke-on-Trent, said the problem was significant.

He said a trainee had told him recently that they planned to leave for Canada after completing GP training in the UK because the system there was 'more user-friendly'.

'We are spending money to train these GPs, we have a workforce crisis in UK general practice and then we are creating trouble,' Dr Kanneganti said. He said an offer of five-year visas for all doctors starting GP training in the UK was a 'simple solution'.

Visa extension

He warned that unless the UK stopped creating problems for doctors keen to stay and work in the NHS, it would lose them to health systems in Canada, Dubai, Australia and other countries that were more welcoming - adding that only a 'minute number' of GP practices were currently registered as visa sponsors.

Numbers of GP trainees coming through the system are integral to a claim repeated frequently by the UK government that the number of 'doctors working in general practice' is rising - a claim that is significantly undermined if a large proportion of these doctors leave the UK before the work in the as fully-qualified GPs.

BMA leaders have accused the government of making misleading claims on the GP workforce. The number of fully-qualified full-time equivalent GPs in England fell by more than 700 in the three years to March 2022 - but the government uses a figure that counts GP trainees to claim that the workforce is growing.

The RCGP has hit back at the claim of 'scaremongering' - warning the current visa system is 'very likely' to put GPs off working in the UK.

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