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Cut to practice visa support could lead to new GPs ‘leaving the country’

by Costanza Pearce
26 August 2020

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GP leaders have warned that a cut to reimbursement of practices’ visa sponsorship costs could lead to new GPs ‘leaving the country’.

From June 2019 to 31 March 2020, NHS England supported practices with the cost of employing GPs from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).

This included the sponsorship licence application fee, visa sponsorship certificates and Immigration Skills Charges for the first two years for any non-EEA GP that practices employed.

However, since April NHS England is no longer reimbursing practices for visa sponsorship application costs, according to its website.

An NHS England spokesperson said it will continue to reimburse non-EEA GPs for their own visa fees, although financial support for practices will end.

Lincolnshire LMCs medical secretary Dr Kieran Sharrock, who ran a successful pilot of the national overseas recruitment scheme in 2016, told Management in Practice’s sister title, Pulse, that this has put practices in a ‘difficult position’.

He said: ‘For a year or two they were helping practices with the cost of visas and a number of practices took advantage of that. Now that’s gone, it’s put practices into a difficult position.

‘The saddest thing about it is that a doctor who the system has spent a fortune training to become a GP then may end up leaving the country because practices don’t want to spend the money on sponsoring the visa.’

The lack of financial support has ‘already impacted practices’ hiring GP trainees in Lincolnshire because it raises the cost of recruiting, Dr Sharrock told Pulse.

Meanwhile, practices should be given all the support possible with recruitment in the ‘difficult’ hiring climate, he added.

He said: ‘We’re trying to encourage practices to recruit [but] it’s difficult, so we need to be giving them all the support we can.’

Dr Kamal Sidhu, vice-chair at County Durham and Darlington LMC and a GP trainer in County Durham, told Pulse the cut to funding is a ‘retrograde step’ that could lead to a further ‘exodus’ of GPs trained in the NHS.

He said: ‘I am surprised that sponsorship costs will no longer be reimbursed. This appears to be a retrograde step and will become a deterrent to practice’s ability to recruit and retain.

‘Immigration policies continue to be out of sync with the needs of the profession.’

He added: ‘There is a real risk that home office rules and regulations that do not reflect or respect workforce demands will continue to result in an exodus of some of the GPs trained within the NHS. Sadly, this is also a massive loss of taxpayer money in addition to the loss of future GPs.’

It comes as the Government announced last month that GP trainee numbers in England have risen by 15% to reach ‘record-breaking’ numbers.

However, Pulse has learned that over a third (35%) of the 3,441 GP trainees who have so far been accepted onto GP specialty training in 2020 will need visa sponsorship from practices when they complete their training.

HEE told Pulse that 1,100 of the trainees accepted to posts in England will need HEE sponsorship for a Tier 2 visa to work in the UK, while it already sponsored 106 at the time of application.

HEE acts as the ‘proxy’ visa sponsor for non-EEA GP trainees, but this ends after training is completed.

And while the international GP recruitment scheme predominantly works with GPs from Europe, a Government spokesperson confirmed that Brexit will mean that EU GPs will also be required to have a visa from January 2021. This will affect a further 240 of this year’s GP trainee intake, who are EU nationals.

They reiterated that EU doctors will be eligible for a new NHS visa which offers reduced fees, fast-track entry, and an exemption to the Immigration Health Surcharge for applicants and their families.

An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘NHS England will continue to reimburse GPs for visas and overseas relocation costs.  

‘Most GP practices already have visa sponsorship licences allowing them to employ doctors moving to England as well as international doctors who have completed their GP training in the UK.’

Despite recent success with GP trainee recruitment, the latest official figures have shown that the number of fully qualified full-time equivalent GPs dropped by 2.5% from March 2019 to March 2020.

And a major Pulse analysis earlier this year found that more must be done for the Government to successfully meet its targets – especially since Brexit is proving a deterrent to overseas doctors.

Last year, the Government pledged to create 50 million more GP appointments per year by bringing 6,000 new doctors to general practice by 2024/25 – including by improving international recruitment.

But in 2018, Pulse revealed that over 400 newly-trained GPs were at risk of deportation because NHS England would not sponsor their visas – and five months later the fate of 100 remained unknown.

A version of this story was first published by our sister title Pulse.