As a new Parliamentary report slams Government inaction on NHS staff shortages, Sian Norris meets a trained doctor who has been waiting six months on the Home Office Tier 2 Visa Scheme

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Administrative barriers are placed in the way of talented international medical graduates who wish to work in the NHS, warned a report from Health and Social Care Select Committee this week, as it concluded that persistent understaffing is harming patient safety. 

These barriers are contributing to staff shortages in General Practice, nursing, social care, midwifery and other forms of medicine, with the committee finding that the NHS was advertising for more than 99,000 staff posts in September last year. 

Despite the clear need for increased staffing levels and resources, the report accused the Government of showing “a marked reluctance to act decisively”.

Trapped between the administrative barriers is Abeni (not his real name), a qualified GP from West Africa who worked in the NHS for five years and has been waiting for more than six months for his new visa to be approved. The wait, he said, “has impacted my emotional wellbeing”. 

As highlighted in the report, healthcare workers like Abeni can train as GPs, and once that training is completed they need to find a sponsor and apply for a Tier 2 Visa – the immigration pathway for skilled professionals such as doctors. They are also required to pay a fee. Abeni got his sponsor by securing a job at a local GP practice. He even paid a fast-track fee to expedite his application – no such fast response was received. 

Eventually, the Home Office got in touch to say there was a complication with his application and he would have to wait.

“I’ve been a doctor since 2011,” Abeni told Byline Times. “I’ve never had a week of leave, never had to sit around doing nothing. Now without my visa, I can’t work. I can’t even work as a cashier in a supermarket because I would need a sponsor to do that. It’s horrible, to be honest. 

“It’s the inability to plan your life,” he continued. “I’ve been in limbo for more than six months. Waking up in the morning and not knowing what I am going to do today”. 

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Broken Promises

The Government has admitted that it will not be able to fulfil its manifesto promise to deliver 6,000 additional full-time GPs – in fact, the NHS lost 717 full-time GPs between March 2019 and March 2022. Abeni’s sponsor at a GP surgery confirmed he could take on six sessions a week for the practice. But despite the obvious pressures on the NHS, he is not allowed to go to work.

“The NHS and the Government are very good at finding out what the problem is,” Abeni told Byline Times. “We know the NHS is understaffed and the Government is not doing anything about it. They have spent thousands of pounds training me and I am not allowed to work”. 

The Select Committee report recommends international medical graduate GP trainees such as Abeni “should be offered leave to remain in the UK upon successful completion of GP speciality training. This would encourage them to live and work in the UK, protecting the NHS’s investment and boosting the GP headcount”. 

Dr Latifa Patel, Interim Chair of the BMA representative body, told the Committee: “If there were one thing that you were going to sort out for our international medical graduates, it would be their visas”.

With no legal right to work until his visa has come through and no entitlements to benefits or state support, Abeni has been living off his savings. Now, the rising cost of living is causing additional anxiety. “I worry I have not saved enough,” he admitted. “Everything is going up and I don’t know how much longer I will have to wait”. 

Abeni worked in mental health and geriatric health during the pandemic, an experience he saw as incredibly rewarding. “I was filled with gratitude that I could go out and help people,” he said. “I had the opportunity to see people and to help people. To hold their hands through that difficult time”. ​​

He’s now gone from being clapped as a carer, to living in limbo as he waits for his visa. 

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Responding to the Select Committee report, a Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We hugely value and appreciate the dedication and contribution of NHS and social care staff. We are growing the health and social care workforce, with over 4,000 more doctors, and 9,600 more nurses compared to last year, and over 1,400 more doctors in general practice compared to March 2019. As we continue to deliver on our commitment to recruit 50,000 more nurses by 2024, we are also running a £95 million recruitment drive for maternity services and providing £500 million to develop our valued social care workforce, including through training opportunities and new career pathways.

“We have commissioned NHS England to develop a long-term workforce plan to recruit and support NHS staff while they deliver high quality, safe care to patients and help to bust the Covid backlogs.”

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times that it could not comment on individual cases and that it has been prioritising visa applications from Ukraine. They added that in order to support the healthcare sector, care workers have been added to the eligible occupations for the Health and Care visa, and the average processing time was four weeks.

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