Between April and October last year, 5,361 candidates completed the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board (PLAB) 2 test - the second part of the GMC exam doctors must sit to show they have the right knowledge and skills to practise medicine in the UK.
However, just 797 candidates completed the PLAB 2 test during the same period this year after disruption caused by the pandemic forced the regulator's assessment centre to close for four months, while testing capacity has halved due to social distancing measures.
The fall in overseas doctors taking tests to work in the UK is a major blow to the NHS workforce, with GMC figures showing that 55% of doctors who joined the NHS workforce between June 2018 and June 2019 qualified outside the UK - although many of these would not have been required to undergo a PLAB test.
The GMC has announced that it will open a temporary COVID secure test centre - converting unused office space at its base in Manchester that has been vacated by staff working at home - to restore the number of doctors it can test to pre-pandemic levels.
PLAB 2 exams were cancelled during the first wave of the pandemic after the regulator’s assessment centre in Spinningfields, Manchester, was forced to close from mid-March to the end of July.
Social distancing measures employed following the reopening of the testing centre in August have caused further disruption to the PLAB 2 exam, which is typically taken by around 11,000 candidates each year.
However, the decrease in the number of candidates able to take this part of the exam is likely to have a significant impact on the number of doctors joining the NHS.
Temporary test centre
The GMC has said its decision to set up a temporary test centre - due to open in Spring 2021 - will help restore the number of doctors that can be safely assessed.
GMC chief executive Charlie Massey said the ‘valuable skills and experience’ that overseas doctors provide could not be overestimated.
He said: ‘At present we cannot safely increase the capacity of our existing assessment centre due to social distancing, but we need to support the demand of the NHS during these extraordinary times, while also supporting the desire of overseas doctors to practise in the UK.
‘Creating a temporary centre at our existing office is the most time and cost-efficient option that will allow us to continue to assess whether those doctors wanting to work here can meet the high standards we require and that patients expect.’
Doctors who qualify outside the European Economic Area (EEA) wishing to work in the UK must sit two exams to gain their registration. The PLAB 2 test is held in Manchester, while the PLAB 1 test - a written multiple-choice exam - can be taken at locations around the world.
PLAB tests for overseas doctors restarted on 13 August, with the first doctors able to book tests from 3 July. Doctors whose exams had been cancelled and who had been unable to travel to their home countries during the pandemic were prioritised.
Half-day workshops to help internationally-qualified doctors adjust to the NHS were relaunched online in July folllowing disruption caused by the pandemic.
Last month the GMC revealed in its annual report on doctor training that the pandemic had ‘upended the normal order of things’, with almost three quarters of trainees saying training had been disrupted in recent months.