NHS warns nurse immigration rules 'harm patient safety'
Leading NHS figures have warned that "stringent" immigration rules are preventing them from getting enough nurses on wards in time for winter.
The heads of 10 leading trusts, along with the NHS Employers organisation, have written to the home secretary to say patients are being put at risk.
They argue operations might be cancelled unless nursing is listed as an occupation with official shortages.
The Home Office said some available places actually remained unused.
NHS Employers believes that 1,000 certificates of sponsorship, allowing nurses from outside Europe to work here, will be needed in the next six months.
And it says "large numbers" of applications have already been rejected.
Chief executive, Danny Mortimer, told BBC News: "These are nurses who've been recruited and could start work in the NHS shortly - but we can't get them into the country.
"They are trained, registered nurses recruited from outside the EU - most typically from India and the Philippines.
"Their absence will be keenly felt. We are asking Theresa May to relieve the pressure on already stretched services as we head into the winter months."
NHS Employers wrote to Immigration Minister James Brokenshire about this issue in July - but has not yet received a reply.
Mr Mortimer added: "We're not an organisation given to this level of public protest.
"But the fact that 10 senior chief executives from different parts of England have signed this letter reflects the strength of concern across the NHS.
"The public might, like us, be surprised to learn that the list of occupations with shortages includes computer games designers and even ballet dancers - but not nurses."
The Migration Advisory Committee is reviewing this aspect of the immigration system but is not due to report until the end of the year.
The NHS leaders argue action is needed before then - because extra UK nurses who are in training now will not be available until 2017 at the earliest.
Risk of more agency staff
The trusts that signed the letter are:
- Sheffield Teaching Hospitals
- Hampshire Hospitals
- Newcastle Hospitals
- Heart of England
- University Hospitals of North Midlands
- Gloucestershire Hospitals
- University College London Hospitals (UCLH)
- The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital
- Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch Hospitals
- East Cheshire
I went to UCLH, which has about 500 vacancies at the moment, out of 3,000 nurses.
There are particular shortages in neonatal and cancer care, as well as on wards looking after children and older people. Many, but not all, of the vacancies can be filled with British nurses.
Hospital staff have also visited the Philippines twice this year to recruit 168 nurses - but have only been able to get sponsorship certificates for about a dozen of them so far.
The trust's director of workforce, Ben Morrin, said: "It's a very large source of frustration, and leaves us open to having to bring in more agency staff.
"This is the most significant and pressing challenge to getting the NHS workforce we need."
A Home Office spokesman said: "NHS trusts have been given more than 1,400 Tier 2 certificates of sponsorship for nurses since April this year, but over 600 of the places allocated to them in April and May this year have been returned unused.
"The independent Migration Advisory Committee, which took evidence from a number of NHS trusts and representative bodies from across the UK, recommended against adding nurses to the Shortage Occupation List earlier this year.
"We will continue to monitor Tier 2 take-up, but have no plans to change the level of the annual limit of 20,700 places."