Almost half of trainees due to complete GP training this year are international medical graduates (IMGs) - and Health Education England (HEE) says around 1,000 in the current ST3 year are on visas that expire in 2022.
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.
Final-year GP trainees with a visa due to expire soon 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 - international medical graduates who have completed UK GP training - will need to return overseas to work.
However, 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).
The process to obtain a sponsorship licence typically takes eight weeks - and unless more practices register as visa sponsors, newly-qualified GPs from overseas could have limited options when applying for jobs after they qualify.
The latest primary care bulletin from NHS England encouraged more surgeries to sign up to become ‘sponsoring practices’. A record number of doctors started GP training in 2021, with the total intake reaching the landmark figure of 4,000 for the first time, according to statistics from HEE, with a large number of trainees coming from non-EEA countries.
Only practices with the Tier 2 visa licence can employ newly-qualified doctors from overseas. Historically practices in areas that struggle with recruitment have used the scheme, but it has now become more commonplace in other areas, according to recruitment specialists.
HEE deputy medical director of primary and integrated care Prof Simon Gregory, said: ‘This year 47% of doctors accepting places in GP specialty training programmes were international medical graduates.
‘In the current ST3 year there are about 1,000 trainees on visas expiring this year but not all will gain their certificate of completion as many are yet to sit their MRCGP and some will need extensions to training.’
Deputy chair of the BMA's GP committee in England Dr Kieran Sharrock said the government had to make the visa application process as 'streamlined and easy as possible' for non-EEA GPs. He said: 'At a time when general practice is facing huge strain, and the number of fully qualified, full-time GPs in England continues to fall, now more than ever, a long-term solution needs to be put in place to ensure we can keep GPs in the community.
'The BMA has repeatedly called for the Home Office to address the long-standing issues around sponsorship for GPs so that they can train and work in England without interruption or having to experience stressful uncertainty over their immigration status.
'The government says it wants to fix the NHS workforce crisis, and there are some solutions that can be implemented now, such as having one overarching sponsor for all GPs, making it easier for doctors from overseas who have trained in the UK to continue to work here.'
NHS England's latest primary care bulletin said: 'If your practice is due to employ any newly qualified GPs this year you may need to consider applying to become a UK visa sponsoring practice.
‘Almost half of GPs completing their training this year are international medical graduates. They have been trained by HEE and have spent at least three years working in the NHS.
‘They have excellent English language skills and knowledge of the NHS ways of working, but most of them will need visa sponsorship if they are to continue working in England’s practices after they qualify.’
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) told GPonline that NHS England and Improvement (NHSE&I) does not hold or collect information on the number of sponsoring practices. But they said that the number of IMG trainee GPs expected to encounter difficulties was 'very low'.
GMC chief executive Charlie Massey recently urged the government to focus equally on the retention of doctors already in the system to alleviate workforce pressures amid record numbers of doctors entering GP specialty training.