Short of Licensed Healthcare Personnel, U.K. to Relax Visa Limitations

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A march in London in February called for support of the National Health Service.

A march in London in February called for support of the National Health Service.


Photo:

Yui Mok/Zuma Press

LONDON—The U.K. government said Thursday it plans to relax immigration rules for doctors and nurses, an effort to address a staffing crunch in the state-run National Health Service that has worsened since voters chose to leave the European Union.

The move showcases a rare clash between two paramount political issues for many British voters, protecting the nation’s beloved NHS and cutting immigration. It comes after repeated warnings from hospital managers that the 70-year-old service was struggling to fill vacancies and that patient care was suffering as a result.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, the influx of EU workers has slowed and tight caps on visas for skilled workers from outside the bloc leave few immigrants from elsewhere to make up the difference, adding to a staffing pinch in an economy running close to full employment. Faced with the NHS shortage, the U.K. Home Office said that from July 6 it intends to exempt medical staff from the annual cap.

Andrew Foster,

chief executive officer of the Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Trust, which oversees a group of hospitals in northern England, said the pipeline of medical staff coming from the EU has “almost completely dried up.”

He has been trying to recruit doctors from outside the EU but his efforts have been stymied by the visa cap. Over the past three months the government turned down visas for 125 non-EU applicants, he said.

Hardly anyone in the country would “think it’s a good idea to stop doctors coming in to fill the workforce gap,” Mr. Foster said. If visas aren’t approved in the coming months, patients will face medical delays and gaps in services, he said.

The cap, currently set at 20,700 a year, has since 2011 been a key feature of a government policy to reduce net migration to the U.K.—immigration minus emigration—to the tens of thousands a year. Official figures show total net migration in the 12 months through September 2017, the most recent period available, was 244,000.

Government ministers argue the cap is essential because Britain’s EU membership prevents it from restricting the arrival of EU citizens, who under the bloc’s rules are free to live and work in any member state. The U.K. voted for withdrawal in a 2016 referendum but isn’t due to leave until next year.

The NHS—one of the world’s biggest employers—has emerged as one of the hardest-hit. It has around 1.2 million staff, 7% of whom are from the EU, and hospital managers say their effort to find qualified employees to fill vacant posts has gotten tougher.

“The biggest issue facing the NHS at the moment is the ability to staff it appropriately,” said Julie Moore, chief executive of the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, another hospital group west of London. “If we can’t get them from abroad, we’re facing a serious staffing issue.”

In the months following the 2016 referendum, a team from Birmingham went to Romania on a recruitment drive, normally a big source of recruitment for the hospital. There was so little interest—just one nurse—that the hospital withdrew just before the trip.

“Some of our European staff are feeling very unsure,” Ms. Moore said. “I personally had to speak to lots of them to say how much we value them and want them to stay.”

It isn’t just the health service that has felt the squeeze, adding to pressure on the government to rethink its immigration policy. The U.K. hit its cap on skilled visas for non-EU workers for the fifth month in a row in April, as companies were forced to look farther afield to make up for falling numbers of European immigrants.

An analysis of official data published this month by law firm Eversheds Sutherland found that, since December, the government has turned down around 10,000 visa applications made by employers to bring in skilled workers.

Write to Jason Douglas at jason.douglas@wsj.com and Jenny Gross at jenny.gross@wsj.com