Proposed limits on migrants from outside the European Economic Area could affect the ability of trusts to continue providing high quality patient care, NHS Employers has warned.

It is calling for an exemption from any cap for NHS organisations that can demonstrate they have tried and failed to recruit from other sources.

NHS Employers head of employment services Karen Charman said 40 per cent of trusts who responded to a survey in May had hoped to recruit staff internationally – an indication of the continuing need for NHS workers from outside the EEA.  Some have now put their plans on hold as temporary restrictions have made it harder to recruit international staff.

The government’s migration advisory committee (MAC) has today recommended reductions of up to 25 per cent in the number of non-EEA migrants given visas. The number of visas for certain categories of migrants was frozen in July and the government is to make a decision over the next months on how people will be allowed into the UK to work from next April.

Ms Charman said: “NHS Employers recently submitted evidence  to the government consultation which highlighted that the NHS may struggle to provide effective patient services if the immigration cap does not ensure enough local flexibility for trusts to recruit migrant workers where needed.

“We are pleased to see the recommendation to exclude in-country migrants from the limit and this could be helpful to employers in the immediate term. But at the very least, exemptions must be provided for any trusts whose ability to maintain quality patient care relies on a number of migrant workers who could not be recruited within the cap.”

In its report, the MAC acknowledged that migrants helped to alleviate skills shortages in healthcare.

Around 24 per cent of consultants and 33 per cent of medical professionals had trained outside the EEA, it said. Some specialties were particularly dependent on non-EEA staff – such as paediatric neurology, where 25 per cent of staff were non-EEA.

In its consultation process, it was warned that without adequate staff from outside the EEA “waiting times to see consultants and for operations might lengthen”.

BMA junior doctors Shree Datta said it was the 24/7 specialties – such as A&E, obstetrics and gynaecology and anaesthetics – which were most under threat from a shortage of international doctors. 

She warned patient care could be affected if trusts were left with too few adequately trained staff. She said: “You only have to look at the Mid Staffordshire inquiry to see that you need adequate trained staff. We have told the government repeatedly the role of doctors from outside the EU in staffing the NHS.”  

The current restriction on immigration – effectively capping it at last year’s levels – has already caused problems.

United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust has found recruiting middle grades so difficult it has revamped its staffing model in A&E and is looking to recruit more consultants. It has dropped its recruitment efforts in countries outside the EU. 

Nurses are also affected. HSJ reported recently that North West London Hospitals Trust was appealing against the refusal to give visas to around 100 nurses it had recruited.