Foreign nurses: how many are to be "kicked out" due to visa rules?

23 June 2015

"Up to 3,365 nurses currently working in Britain are likely to be affected by a policy which says migrants from outside Europe must earn £35,000 or more if they are to be allowed to stay on after six years working here."—the Independent, 22 June 2015

"Tories plan to kick 30,000 nurses out of Britain because they weren't born here"—Mirror headline, 22 June 2015

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has warned that upcoming changes to immigration rules could worsen what it calls the "severe shortage" of nurses in the UK.

At first glance the Mirror or Independent would appear to have taken different messages from the RCN's report — their figures are different by a factor of 10.

Both figures appear in the report. 3,000 is its estimate of how many nurses currently working in the UK will no longer be eligible for their current visa. The 30,000 figure is far more speculative. It's a projection of the number of nurses who might be affected by 2020, if and only if there is a "significant increase" in the number of nurses migrating from outside the European Economic Area (EEA). If recruitment stays the same, the RCN forecasts that 7,000 will be affected.

So it's quite a stretch to say the immigration rules amount to a plan to kick 30,000 out.

Changes to immigration rules

Overseas workers sponsored by an employer can work in the UK for a maximum of six years using Tier 2 (General) visas. These are temporary visas for skilled workers with a job offer in the UK. Nurses and other workers on these visas must apply to settle here in order to continue working.

But rules which came into effect in April 2011 mean they're only eligible to apply if they're earning £35,000 a year or above (unless they're able to settle in another way, for instance through marriage).

That means some nurses who arrived in April 2011 may well have to leave the UK by April 2017.

An estimated 3,000 current nurses affected

3,400 nurses from outside the EEA registered to work in the UK between April 2011 and March 2015, according to figures obtained by the RCN from the Nursing & Midwifery Council. The new rules will apply to them, so only those earning £35,000 or more by 2017 will be eligible to apply for indefinite leave.

To get to a figure of 3,000 ineligible nurses, the RCN has assumed that 90% of the 3,400 non-EEA nurses will earn below this amount, and that this will mean they'll be unable to remain in the UK.

The average member of nursing staff employed in the NHS earns about £31,000 a year according to the latest figures for England. That may not be representative of a salary for the nurses in question, who could typically be at a different stage of their career, have different qualifications, or work for non-NHS providers or agencies which pay differently.

Looking ahead to 2020 — 7,000 nurses, or 30,000, or neither?

Using the same assumptions, the RCN estimate that if the same number of non-EEA nurses migrate to the UK in every year from now to 2020, 7,000 will be affected by the 2011 rule change (including the 3,000 who are already here).

That rises to 30,000 if the number of migrants rises from 600 to 8,000 a year by 2020. The RCN says:

"Although recruiting 8,000 nurses per year from outside the EEA would be a significant increase from current levels, this number is actually only half the number of nurses recruited to the UK in 2001-2."

While it's not unprecedented for the number of non-EEA nurses migrating to be at those levels, the circumstances today are different. The government is aiming to reduce net migration, for instance.

Most importantly for the Mirror's claim, if the government does have a plan to kick 30,000 nurses out of the UK, it must also have a plan to get them in first.

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