The erstwhile Health Minister Simon Hamilton has acknowledged new anti-immigration rules could cause problems for the Western Trust and private health providers when they take effect next April.
Under new legislation introduced by the Home Secretary Theresa May immigrants will have to earn at least £35,000 in order to settle in Northern Ireland.
Mr Hamilton warned this may have a detrimental effect on our hospitals and nursing homes, where hundreds of nurses from outside the European Union are employed.
UUP MLA Samuel Gardiner asked Mr Hamilton how many nurses from the Asian subcontinent are employed in each Trust and for his assessment of the impact of proposed new UK immigration rules for non-EU workers earning less than £35,000.
Mr Hamilton said it was not mandatory to register employee nationality, therefore the information was not available.
However, it’s self-evident doctors and nurses from southern and eastern Asia and other regions outside Europe have been and are vital components of the local health service.
The Philippines, for example, exports nurses to the United Kingdom and Ireland in a similar way to which Ireland exported nurses to England in the middle of the last Century.
The Health Minister accepted there could be problems down the line.
“I am aware that these proposed rules could potentially cause difficulty for both HSC and Independent Sector employers in certain professions however immigration is an excepted matter and as such is outwith the control of my Department.
“My Department will continue to lead regional workforce planning to help ensure a supply of suitable, sufficiently qualified staff to meet the needs of the Health Service,” he said.
Back in 2011 the Audit Office (NIAO) suggested new immigration rules, introduced in February 2008, restricting the number of overseas doctors eligible to work in the UK, had led to an overreliance on locum doctors here that still persists and costs taxpayers millions.
The NIAO said the Western Trust’s reliance on International Medical Graduates (IMGs) had been partly replaced by a disproportionate use of locum cover.
An obvious portential elephant trap that could be set by the new rules would be that nurses from Asia, barred from staff jobs due to their lower than £35,000 earnings, would be replaced by more expensive agency nurses.
The Trust could experience the same thing that happened with locums when African and Asian doctors found it more difficult to settle in NI after 2008.