The government has finally climbed down on visa restrictions for foreign doctors and nurses, scrapping the cap on numbers who can be employed using the tier 2 visa route. This was costing NHS trusts shocking amounts of money in processing applications from overseas medical professionals which were in large part turned down by the Home Office.
It is striking that the government decided this week to relax these restrictions, given they are part of the tough immigration policy introduced by Theresa May. Time was when the then Home Secretary would repeatedly upbraid David Cameron for handing her a net migration target to deliver which her Cabinet colleagues were frequently trying to flout. May remained committed to this target when most other Conservatives had accepted that it was no better than something written on the back of a fag packet, and had stuck to it as Prime Minister too.
But this week’s decision, confirmed today, tells us two things. One is that May has learned from the Windrush scandal that being tough on immigration is not always automatically the popular choice: something she and her advisers had argued repeatedly as a result of visits around the country listening to voters’ concerns about this matter. Sajid Javid made clear on his appointment as Home Secretary that the immigration system would be reformed, and this is the first sign of a relaxation in rules. Secondly, there are concerns that an approach to immigration that seems mean rather than sensible and firm would in fact undermine Brexit more widely, suggesting that Britain was retreating to a isolationist, small-minded society as caricatured by opponents of leaving the European Union. Given the salience of the NHS, preventing hospitals from recruiting the healthcare professionals they need and costing them a great deal of money along the way would have been a row that a government as weak as this one could ill afford.