nursing shortage UK, nurse deportaton
© Reuters / Stefan Wermuth
New immigration rules could force up to 30,000 foreign nurses in the UK to return to their home countries despite the National Health Service (NHS) facing a severe nursing shortage, healthcare unions have warned.

A new pay threshold, due to come into effect next April, will mean non-European workers will have to leave the UK after six years if they are earning less than £35,000.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warned the rules would "cause chaos" for the NHS at a time when demand on the health service is increasing.

The union called on the Home Office to add nurses to the list of shortage occupations which are exempt from the immigration rules and to reconsider the pay threshold.

Speaking at the RCN annual conference in Bournemouth, General Secretary Peter Carter said: "The immigration rules will cause chaos for the NHS and other care services. At a time when demand is increasing, the UK is perversely making it harder to employ staff from overseas.

"The NHS has spent millions hiring nurses from overseas in order to provide safe staffing levels. These rules will mean that money has just been thrown down the drain.

"The UK will be sending away nurses who have contributed to the health service for six years. Losing their skills and knowledge and then having to start the cycle again and recruit to replace them is completely illogical," he added.

RCN research suggests up to 3,365 nurses, who cost £20.19 million to recruit, could be forced to leave under the new rules.

By 2020, the number of nurses forced to leave the UK could be as high as 29,755, wasting £178.5 million in recruitment costs.

Speaking to BBC Radio Four's Today program, Carter said the government's decision was "totally illogical" given there is a "major shortage of nurses" leading to many NHS trusts spending "tens of millions" to recruit from overseas.

Carter added that most nurses earn "nowhere near" £35,000, with most salaries between £21,000 and £28,000 a year.

This fresh clampdown on migrant nurses is part of Home Secretary Theresa May's plan to reduce demand for migrant labor by limiting employment opportunities to people within the European Economic Area (EEA).

British Medical Association (BMA) Chairman Mark Porter echoed the RCN's condemnation of the government's plans.

Speaking at the BMA annual representatives meeting in Liverpool, he said: "What did we hear in the election campaign from politicians of several parties? We were told immigrants are filling up our GP surgeries and our hospitals."

"Well they are. They're called doctors. And nurses. And porters and cleaners and clinical scientists. And without them, the NHS would be on its knees."

A Home Office spokesman said: "There are exemptions to this threshold for occupations where the UK has a shortage - but the independent Migration Advisory Committee recommended against adding nurses to the shortage occupation list after taking evidence from groups, including the RCN.

"Employers have had since 2011 to prepare for the possibility their non-EEA workers may not meet the required salary threshold to remain in the UK permanently."