'Punitive' visa rules forcing out exceptional GP trainees, LMCs warn

International medical graduates (IMGs) who train as GPs in the UK must be supported to obtain visas after they qualify so they can remain in the NHS workforce, LMCs have warned.

Consulting room door
UK-trained GPs may be lost (Photo: Robert Johns/UNP)

GPs at the UK LMCs conference in York overwhelmingly supported a motion calling for the government to facilitate Tier 2 visa sponsorship for all practices across the country.

GPs backing the motion highlighted IMGs' ‘vast contribution’ to the NHS and argued it was nonsensical to lose ‘exceptional colleagues’ due to unnecessary ‘hoop-jumping’ when the UK is ‘crying out’ for more GPs.

The motion, which passed with 98% of the vote, also calls on the government to mandate a five-year minimum visa award to doctors entering UK GP training programmes - and to extend the length of existing Tier 2 visas to give newly-qualified GPs more time to secure jobs.

GP trainees

Directives to ask the government to relax rules around visa applications for IMGs comes after GPonline reported earlier this week that thousands of GP trainees could face barriers to working in the UK after training unless more practices apply to become visa sponsors.

Dr Andrew Wilson, chair of the BMA’s junior doctors committee in Northern Ireland, who proposed the motion argued that punitive rules had to change to ensure IMGs were retained in the workforce after they qualified as GPs.

He said: ‘These doctors who emigrated to undertake general practice training in the United Kingdom at the end of their training aren't even guaranteed indefinitely to remain, [there is no] guarantee that they can remain in the United Kingdom at all.

‘This causes significant stress to these trainees due to the fact, even though they have trained in the UK and have been proven to be of a UK standard, they aren't granted permission to remain in this country.

Workforce crisis

‘This is simply wrong. This is a bad situation for general practice, and bad for the taxpayer and the wider NHS. One cannot fathom that, in this time of extreme GP shortage, why the government insists on making these trainees jump through these hoops causing some to leave the UK.'

Delegates also heard from trainee GP Dr Adewale Saka who said he wasn’t sure if he would be able to remain in the UK after August. He explained that there was a lack of 'sponsoring practices' in his locality, and that he'd had to widen his search, while some of his colleagues were considering working for hospitals.

Responding to the vote, chair of GPC UK at the BMA Dr Phil White, said: ‘If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s how vital our NHS workforce is - and IMGs are a key part of that. Anything to make it easier for IMGs to come and stay to work in the UK should therefore be seriously considered by the government, and their input into our health service properly recognised and valued.

‘Other countries have taken steps to recognise and support the contributions of their international workers both before and during the pandemic, and as a result have retained an experienced and talented workforce.

International medical graduates

‘GPC UK and each BMA GP committee will be reflecting on this motion and seeing how it could inform policy relating to their nations.’

NHS Digital figures show that there are currently more than 8,000 GP trainees in practice placements in England - suggesting that across all current trainees, thousands could need visa support to work in the UK in the next few years. HEE has said that there are around 1,000 final-year GP trainees with expiring visas in 2022.

Final-year GP trainees with a visa due to expire soon - of which there are around 1,000 - will need to find employment with a practice that is set up as a Tier 2 visa sponsor to be able to work in the UK once they qualify. Otherwise these doctors will need to return overseas to work. 

But GPonline understands that only a minority of GP surgeries are currently registered as ‘sponsoring practices’ and therefore able to employ GPs from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).

Motion in full:

That conference celebrates and values the contribution of international medical graduates to our workforce and calls on the UK government to:

(i) support the option of relocation of the close family of NHS workers to the UK

(ii) facilitate tier 2 sponsorship / skilled worker status funding for all practices across the country

(iii) mandate a five year minimum visa award to doctors entering UK GP training programmes

(iv) extend the duration of any existing tier 2 visa (or health and social care visa) before the planned CCT date without trainees having to secure employment for visa sponsorship

(v) lobby the DVLA to prioritise IMG GP trainees who do not hold a UK driving license for driving tests.

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