The British Medical Association Council has warned that recent changes in immigration rules could lead to serious shortage of doctors and add pressure on the existing staff.
The changes restrict international medical students studying in the UK from continuing with their medical training beyond the two-year postgraduate Foundation Programme.
March 2009, the Home Office changed the academic requirement for the Tier 1 immigration category. Doctors applying to Tier 1 now need the minimum of a Master's degree to be accepted onto it.
A medical degree is classified as a Bachelor's degree, and as a result many medical students and junior doctors who have been studying in the UK for up to seven years
could be lost to the NHS, it is feared.
Dr Hamish Meldrum, Chairman of BMA Council, wrote to the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson, to request that he intervenes to ensure that the UK does not lose further doctors as a result of those changes.
The NHS is already facing understaffed workforce rotas in a range of medical specialties; a problem which the Department of Health has acknowledged was caused, in part, by previous changes to the immigration system.
In August 2009, the European Working Time Directive will be fully implemented, reducing the working week of junior doctors to 48 hours, placing further pressure on staffing.
In the letter to Alan Johnson, Dr Hamish Meldrum says:
"The change to the Tier 1 requirements will seriously restrict international students, who have completed their undergraduate studies at UK medical schools, from continuing with their postgraduate medical education beyond the Foundation Programme. These individuals have been included in workforce planning statistics and restricting their ability to progress with their postgraduate medical training contradicts the Government's previously stated aim of maximising training opportunities for UK-trained doctors.
"The full implementation of the European Working Time Directive and its impact on junior doctors' training hours, coupled with a situation in which a proportion of prospective trainees can no longer continue with their training due to ever-tightening immigration rules, is likely to exacerbate rota gaps, putting patient safety at greater risk.
"Restricting their career options to such an extent represents a huge waste of taxpayers' money and may lead to affected doctors leaving the UK permanently."
"The BMA is requesting that the Department of Health intervenes to ensure that the changes to Tier 1 are prospective and do not impact upon either those individuals who are recent graduates of UK medical schools or existing international medical students who began their studies prior to the increased Tier 1 requirements of 31 March 2009."
The Government has overhauled the immigration system within the UK with the introduction of a five-tiered immigration system. The system is points-based and individuals must score a minimum number of points within a given Tier to be given leave to enter or remain in the UK. Tier 1 is the highly skilled worker category.
Doctor training in the UK typically involves five years of undergraduate study followed by a two year postgraduate Foundation Programme.
In March 2006 permit-free training for doctors ceased although international graduates of UK medical schools remained able to continue with their training via the Postgraduate Doctor and Dentist Visa and the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP) immigration routes.
When Tier 1 replaced the HSMP in February 2008 certain doctors were restricted from working as a doctor-in-training. The introduction of tighter immigration requirements for doctors has led to a reduction in the numbers of overseas doctors coming to the UK. One result of this has been that trusts are finding it harder to find locum doctors to fill rota gaps, it is pointed out.
The BMA also wrote to Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas to raise this issue on May 6th 2009.