The Conservatives say they will make it easier for doctors and nurses from around the world to work in the UK after Brexit, if they win the election.
The party would introduce an “NHS visa” as part of a promised “points-based immigration system”.
But Labour said the policy was “full of holes,” with nothing to say about low-paid nurses and other hospital staff.
And the Royal College of Nursing said “more ambitious” plans were needed to address NHS staffing shortages.
The Conservatives plan to end free movement of workers from EU countries when the UK leaves the EU – something they have promised will happen on 31 January if they are returned to power on 12 December.
The party would introduce a “points-based system” for migrant workers from EU and non-EU countries.
It has yet to spell out in detail how this will work – but it has announced that extra points will be awarded for coming to work in the NHS.
The cost of applying for a visa would also be reduced from £928 to £464 for medical professionals, and they would be guaranteed a decision within two weeks, under Tory plans.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “From its inception the NHS has recruited globally. This new visa will make it easier for us to hire the finest doctors and nurses from other nations to come and work in the NHS – so that patients can receive the best possible care.”
The Conservatives say they would launch the “NHS visa” scheme before the planned introduction of the points-based system in 2021.
They have already announced a fast-track visa route to attract specialists in science, engineering and technology.
The Conservatives have also previously said they will scrap the cap on the number of skilled workers, such as doctors, from the EU and elsewhere, after Brexit.
The party is considering scrapping the minimum salary requirement of £30,000 for skilled migrants seeking five-year visas.
When asked if there would be more people from overseas working in the UK under a future Conservative government, Home Secretary Priti Patel did not answer directly but said the public wanted “controlled immigration”.
by BBC Reality Check
We already knew that the government wanted to introduce a points-based system for EU citizens after Brexit. Non-EU citizens already have their visas accepted or denied based on a combination of points, and other factors like how much they earn and if they have a confirmed job.
The fact that, under these new plans, in-demand public service professionals like nurses will get more points for coming to work in the NHS is not entirely surprising. The new “NHS visa” will be for all foreign nationals, both EU and non-EU.
The NHS currently has a vacancy rate of 8.1% equating to about 100,000 staff. About 13% of the NHS workforce comes from outside the UK, of which 6% are from the EU. When it comes to doctors, 28% come from outside the UK of which 9.5% are from the EU.
As the system for non-EU citizens currently stands, some health professionals already get preferential treatment. For example, nurses don’t have to meet the £30,000 salary threshold. And there’s no cap on how many visas can be given out to doctors or nurses as there is for most other skilled professionals.
The key changes in this announcement are the halving of the visa fee and allowing people to pay back the £400 a year compulsory health insurance more slowly.
It doesn’t remove the £1,000 immigration skills charge employers have to pay for every foreign worker they hire. And these plans won’t help social care staff who very often earn less than £30,000 – in an industry which also has a vacancy rate of 8%.
The Royal College of Nursing said a failure to train enough nurses was forcing the NHS to “recruit overseas in the short-term”.
RCN chief executive Dame Donna Kinnair said she wanted to see a fairer immigration system that valued skills and did not fixate on “arbitrary targets”.
“But the devil will be in the detail and we cannot be satisfied by rhetoric alone,” she added.
“There are tens of thousands of unfilled nursing jobs and we need more ambitious plans than this to address it.”
Labour also attacked the lack of detail in the Conservative plans.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “The Tories are tying themselves in knots over immigration. They use dog-whistle anti-migrant rhetoric but are forced to accept we need migrant workers for key sectors, not just the NHS, but many more besides.
“This policy is full of holes, with nothing to say about the nurses earning below their income threshold, as well as all the cooks, cleaners, hospital porters and others who are vital to hospitals, and nothing at all about their right to bring family members here.
“Labour’s immigration policy is rational and fair and will prioritise attracting the people we need, and treat them as human beings.”
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Christine Jardine said that, even with the visa application costs reduced for medical professionals, the £464 charge still amounted to a “nurse tax”.
More than 12% of the NHS workforce reported their nationality as not British, according to a report published last year.
The biggest group of foreign NHS workers are from the EU – 56 in every 1,000 – but, the report added, the number of new staff coming from the EU is falling, and that this decline particularly applies to nurses.
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