You wait ages for a new visa route and three come along at the same time… Hot on the heels of the announcements earlier this summer of new visas for graduates and for scientists comes today’s news that the Conservatives are planning to introduce a “NHS visa” as part of their proposals for an Australian style points based immigration system should they win the general election.
The aim is to ensure that the NHS is able to source overseas doctors and nurses once EU free movement comes to an end post-Brexit. From today’s media reports we know that the visa will cost £464, half the normal fee. The visa process will be fast-tracked — decisions will be made within two weeks — and NHS workers applying through this route will have access to some form of payment system to repay the immigration health surcharge in instalments via their salary once in the UK.
It sounds promising. The reduced fee is certainly a positive step and hopefully a sign that the government accepts that the current immigration system has become exorbitantly expensive. The fast-track processing is less exciting, as most non-settlement visas can already be processed via a priority service within a week for a fee of around £250. What will be interesting is whether this enhanced processing is offered free of charge for NHS workers, or if in the small print there will be hidden costs attached — fees to book appointments or scan documents, for instance — which visa applicants often get stung by.
The fact that NHS workers have to pay the £400 per year NHS surcharge in the first place is laughable. At the very least they should get some form of John Lewis-style employee discount. A repayment system will still mean a nurse losing £2,000 from their salary over several years, on top of the up-front visa fee. Exempting them from the charge altogether would show a real intent to broaden the UK’s appeal to foreign medical professionals.
The announcement shines a tiny bit more light on the government’s overall plans for the immigration system. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has said that the new visa route is “part of our plan for an Australian-style, points-based immigration system that allows us to control numbers while remaining open to vital professions like nurses”. We still do not know whether this antipodean vision will be in addition to, or a replacement for, our current points based system. The indications are that this new visa will be outside the Tier 2 work visa apparatus — which raises the question of whether our current sponsorship system will be maintained.
Again, though, this is another example of politicians claiming that a points based system will allow them to control net migration, when the evidence, and the UK’s own recent history, shows that this reasoning is flawed. With ministers unable to say whether the Conservatives want immigration to go up or down, honest answers on why we need an Australian points based system are way overdue.