Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy is “damaging” the NHS, Labour claimed this afternoon after reports the PM blocked calls to allow more overseas doctors into the UK.
The Evening Standard has reported that Downing Street ignored pleas from three Cabinet Ministers to relax visa rules to fill vacancies in the health service and across the business community.
The current visa rules place a cap on how many non-EU workers can come to the UK, and this ceiling has been hit for six months in a row.
According to the London-based newspaper – edited by former Chancellor George Osborne – Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, now-ex Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Business Secretary Greg Clark all urged Downing Street to lift the cap.
May “absolutely refused to budge”, according to a source quoted by the paper.
The revelation comes as the Conservative’s policy towards immigration is under increased scrutiny thanks to the Windrush scandal.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth said: “It makes no sense whatsoever that the Government is turning away trained doctors who want to come and work here in the UK. Theresa May’s hostile environment policy is now directly damaging NHS patient care.
“The NHS is facing a massive workforce crisis. More than 100,000 NHS posts are now unfilled and vacancy rates for nurses and doctors are rising year on year, yet the Government is refusing visas for trained staff from overseas because of the rules drawn up during Theresa May’s time as Home Secretary.
“The visa rules clearly aren’t working in the best interests of NHS patients. Ministers ought to be doing more to keep patients safe and their priority should be making sure hospitals can get the right numbers of staff in place.”
Health trust bosses raised concerns over the visa scheme last week as it emerged 100 Indian doctors were denied visas to work in the UK.
Jon Rouse, chief officer of the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, told the BBC: “As we reach the end of a winter where the NHS has been stretched to its very limits, partly as a result of a lack of medical workforce, we find it almost impossible to understand how this decision can have been reached.”
The capping of non-EU migrants plays a key part in the Government’s battle to get net migration down below 100,000 a year – a policy Theresa May has repeatedly stood by.
In his first Commons outing as Home Secretary on Monday, Sajid Javid was urged by Labour’s Chuka Umunna to drop the target, insisting the former Communities Secretary has a “golden opportunity to turn the page on a toxic debate around immigration”.
Tory MP Nick Boles also hinted the policy should be dumped, telling Javid: “We want to see the policy of the Home Secretary – one of the four great offices of state – and if that means retiring some legacy policies, then so be it.”
Asked about the Standard story on Tuesday, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: “It remains essential we have control of the immigration system and it works in the national interest.”
He added: “We are monitoring the situation in relation to visa applications for doctors, including the monthly limits through the tier 2 visa route. Around one-third of all tier 2 visas go to the NHS and investing in our workforce will continue to be a top priority.”
Asked if the Prime Minister had personally vetoed plans to lift the cap, he said: “As for formulation of government policy, that’s not something I’d discuss.”