The Sponsor Licence and UK visa system should be made simpler and much cheaper. It costs many thousands of pounds to bring in Skilled Workers in to the UK. The UK must have one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive work visa system in the World.
The Home Office and NHS England are reportedly exploring the possibility of ‘umbrella bodies’, such as ICBs, sponsoring international medical graduates (IMG) GPs to remain in Britain. Under current UK immigration rules, overseas doctors or IMGs must work under a skilled worker visa for five years before they can apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR).
While this timeframe covers most specialist medical training, GPs usually gain their certificate of completion of training (CCT) after three years. This means that there is a two-year gap, in which time they must secure sponsorship should they want to remain in the UK when their skilled worker visa expires.
NHS England was expecting to be allowed to sponsor doctors during the two-year gap, but failed to reach an agreement with the Home Office.
During a recent parliamentary debate, Home Office minister for UK immigration, Robert Jenrick, said: “It’s the government’s belief that the best way to increase the number of international GPs taking up places in the UK is for GP practices to register as Home Office-approved sponsors.”
Visa sponsorship should not be onerous
Mr Jenrick went on to say: “Sponsorship is not supposed to be onerous and the Home Office believes that it is not as onerous as some people clearly perceive it to be. Over 48,000 organisations are licensed sponsors of skilled workers, and many are high-pressure, small organisations, such as GP practices.”
However, the minister for immigration did concede that there is obviously an issue – whether in reality or in perception – and said that he is ‘prepared to consider other sponsorship arrangements suggested by NHS England’.
He said: “In principle, the sponsor could be an appropriate national body, such as Health Education England. It has not approached us to ask to be such a body, but I would be open to considering that. The sponsor could be an integrated care board in England or an appropriate body in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, or it could be a royal college.”
Mr Jenrick added: “I will therefore ask my officials to work with the sector to see whether there is a way forward to create umbrella bodies, if there is mutual support on both sides, with the caveat that any umbrella body would need to discharge the required duties in law to ensure the robustness of the system.
“If that can be delivered by appropriate umbrella bodies, we would be pleased to see whether it can be taken forward.”
ICSs considered for umbrella visa sponsorship
In a recent House of Commons health and social care committee hearing Chris Hopson, the chief strategy officer for NHS England, confirmed that the body is looking into the solution of ICSs becoming ‘umbrella’ sponsors for visas.
He told the committee: “You can now do that in a supported way with appropriate resource at the ICS level, so that is something I know we are looking at.”
As the proposals seemingly gather momentum, Mr Jenrick revealed that ‘in the interim’ he has commissioned officials to run ‘engagement events with the sector to talk them through how straightforward they believe it is to be a sponsor’.
Mr Jenrick said: “We will take into account any feedback that we receive during these events, and if it is true that the system is simply too complex and burdensome, I have asked them [the officials] to report back to me with that feedback and we will take it into consideration.”
The minister for UK immigration went on to add that the government is ‘keen to recruit and train more GPs in the UK’, and stated that ‘persuasive arguments have been made for raising the cap on medical school places’.
He said: “That is an important debate to have, and one that I am sure will find favour with the new Chancellor, who has raised the matter many times in the past. The government should be considering measures such as raising the cap on medical school places, if we are able to do so.”
No room for flexibility on medical school places
Jenrick’s comments come despite a government minister recently saying that there is ‘no room for flexibility this year to increase medical school places’. However, Labour has pledged to double the number of places.
Meanwhile, the minister for immigration ruled out the idea of reducing the amount of time after which IMG GPs can apply for ILR, stating that this is ‘about the right length of time’.
He said: “Although I am sympathetic to the arguments around granting GPs settlement on completion of their training, my view is that it is better to stick to five years because that has been, by the long-standing convention of this government and their predecessors, considered the right length of time for an individual to demonstrate sufficient commitment to the UK to obtain indefinite leave to remain.”
“At the moment we do not have plans to reduce the length of time that skilled workers would need to complete in the UK in order to apply for settlement,” Mr Jenrick added.
Key IMG visa issues
The struggle faced by overseas GPs in obtaining UK visas stretches back decades, with many health industry officials claiming visa rules to be ‘nonsensical’.
In fact, in a recent RCGP letter sent to the Home Secretary, which was signed by more than 4,000 GPs and GP trainees, demands were made to ‘find an urgent solution to the nonsensical visa rules’.
In May 2022, the RCGP wrote to the Home Office, which responded by putting the onus on GP practices to become Tier 2 sponsors. However, the RCGP argued that this would have ‘significant financial and bureaucratic implications for practices’.
A recent RCGP survey found that more than 40% of all trainees are IMGs, while 30% said they found the UK skilled worker visa system ‘really difficult’, and that they were considering giving up on plans to work in Britain as a GP.
Back in April, it was revealed that up to 1,000 newly-qualified GPs could face removal from the UK when their visas expire in 2023.
In June of this year, the RCGP informed MPs that recently qualified GPs were receiving deportation letters soon after finishing their medical training.
In July, the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee called for a default UK visa extension for six months after IMGs’ expected GP training completion dates, in order to give them time to find an appropriate employer. However, in response, the government said that highlighting GP visa concerns amounted to ‘needless scaremongering’.
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