The government is working on plans to recruit thousands of foreign workers from countries such as India and the Phillippines to plug staffing gaps in the health and social care sector, according to reports.
Overseas recruits are expected to be brought in on a “mass scale” as the health service struggles to fill vacancies.
Nurses and other healthcare staff are needed before the winter, when services will come under even greater pressure. Steve Barclay, the health secretary, has instructed an international taskforce to help achieve this, according to The Times.
Paperwork relating to the new drive for overseas workers, seen by the newspaper, said ministers had decided that “international recruitment” was one solution to the staffing shortfall.
A source told The Times that the health and care visa could be used to bring in staff to fill some of the 160,000 vacancies.
“Ensuring the NHS and care have enough staff to cope with a challenging winter is an absolute priority and finding ways of boosting international recruitment, including through the health and care visa, is a key part of that,” they said.
“We’re open to any ideas to help, including an online support hub, but need to make sure they’ll work, and we need to do that now so that we can boost capacity ahead of the winter.”
Post-Brexit immigration rules requested and implemented by the British government have made it more complicated and costly for European healthcare workers to move to the UK.
The problem is being compounded by a slump in acceptances on nursing degrees this year, which unions have warned will worsen the staffing crisis in health and social care.
Royal College of Nursing chief Pat Cullen said figures released by Ucas on Thursday showing 1,560 fewer students were admitted to courses than in 2021 were pointing “in the wrong direction”.
There are 21,130 accepted applicants onto nursing courses this year compared with 22,690 last year, the RCN said.
A damning report last month found that persistent understaffing in the NHS is creating a serious risk to patient safety.
The cross-party health and social care committee said health and social care services in England face “the greatest workforce crisis in their history” and the government has no credible strategy to make the situation better.
Projections suggest an extra 475,000 jobs will be needed in health and an extra 490,000 jobs in social care by the early part of the next decade.
Earlier on Thursday, the education secretary, James Cleverly, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The NHS has always relied significantly on medical professionals from overseas, and I doubt that that will change any time in my lifetime.
“We are recruiting more doctors and more nurses, we are training more homegrown medical talent.”