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31/05/2018 13:27 BST | Updated 31/05/2018 13:27 BST

Scrapping The Cap On Foreign Doctors – Can Anything Be Learned From History?

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The NHS is suffering an acute shortage of skilled health professionals, yet Theresa May’s government is standing behind its decision to block visa requests for doctors who come from outside the EU. Up to 100 doctors from India, for example, have been refused visas because the places available to skilled workers from outside Europe are limited. This despite the fact that the NHS recruited these doctors to try and plug the gap in healthcare provision in the UK. The Tories maintain that their policy is “in the national interest”, which seems hard to believe given the short-term staffing crisis the NHS is experiencing.

Public feeling is still very much against immigration, with 63% of Britons thinking that immigration into the UK over the past decade has been too high, and almost a third believing it has mostly been bad for the country. However, it would seem that the British public are not against all immigration, just certain types of immigrants. According to the Evening Standard, 37% of Britons believe there should be no cap on doctors, and this is particularly high in the 18-34 age group, where that number jumps to 75%.

Overall, when Britons speak about immigration in a positive way, it tends to be about people coming to work in the NHS, highly qualified professionals, or students. It is remarkable how these trends have changed since the 1930s, when there were protests and threats of strikes if professional refugees such as doctors were admitted into the country.

Before the founding of the NHS, healthcare provision in the UK was very patchy. Where you lived and how much money you earned determined the quality of what healthcare – if any – you could afford. Some communities were not even served by a doctor, so you would have thought that refugee doctors fleeing from Nazi-occupied Europe would have been welcomed with open arms. The truth was, however, that British doctors, as represented by the British Medical Association (BMA), took a very strong stance against immigration.

This view was reflected in newspapers of the time, which wrote about Britain being overrun with foreign doctors, and suggested there were no checks on these doctors’ qualifications. Instead of welcoming a potential source of assistance for British people, foreign doctors were stigmatised as dangerous and of not giving a high enough standard of care. The fact that the Nazis had banned Jewish doctors from practicing medicine in Germany was also used against refugee doctors, as it was considered there must be something ‘wrong’ with them.

Today, the numbers of doctors given skilled workers visas is limited, just like the number of refugees from Nazi oppression permitted to come to the UK in the 1930s. There were approximately 45,000 doctors practicing in Britain during the 1930s, so letting in 200 to 300 was only an increase of less than 1%, though that did not stop the protests, particularly from the BMA, who were very much against having any potential competition.

Ironically, given today’s emphasis on accepting skilled workers into the UK, back in the 1930s it was easier for an immigrant to enter as a low-skilled worker, like as gardeners or domestic servants. This is in marked contrast to recent post-Brexit crackdowns on EU citizens from low-skilled jobs. Economic circumstances will always dictate how easy it is to assimilate immigrants into a country, but where there is a clear need for people to fill a skills shortage, such as in the NHS, it seems crazy to adhere to a tough immigration policy that a significant proportion of the British public are against.

It is possible to learn from the mistakes of the past, as demonstrated by the fact the BMA now has a much more positive outlook on foreign doctors, with a special initiative designed to get refugee doctors into the UK to practice medicine as quickly as possible. This could not be more different from their approach 80 years ago. Although too late for doctors fleeing historic persecution, this modern initiative shows how the BMA has learned from the past and realised how foreign doctors can be a huge help to the UK. It would do well for the current Tory government to also try and learn from history.