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How NHS visa cap exemption could help boost tech sector

The government has announced that NHS doctors and nurses will no longer be subject to Tier 2 visa caps, but what does this mean for the technology industry?

To encourage more highly skilled doctors and nurses to come to the UK, the government has excluded these professions from the current cap on Tier 2 visas, which restricts the number of skilled workers who can enter the country each year.

The NHS currently accounts for 40% of all Tier 2 places, so in theory the new exemption will result in more places being available each year for other skilled workers, such as engineers, IT professionals and teachers.

Home secretary Sajid Javid said the move was in response to “pressures faced by the NHS and other sectors” as Tier 2 visa applications have exceeded available allocations in the past few months.

Vinous Ali, head of policy at TechUK, described the announcement as “hugely welcome” and said the tech sector is ready to help the government make sure the future migration system is right for the country’s needs.

“The tech sector in the UK is going from strength to strength,” she said. “For this is to continue, we need an immigration system that works.

“Tech workers are some of the most mobile and in-demand professionals in the world, and if the UK wants to be a global hub for tech, then it needs to be open and attractive to the best tech talent.”

From December 2017 to March 2018 6,080 Tier 2 visas were refused, 1,226 of which were for IT and technology roles.

The UK may be turning skilled professionals in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) away, but the number of people who want to come to the UK is also in decline.

Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of European Union (EU) citizens choosing to leave the UK is the highest for 10 years, and the number of EU nationals coming to the UK has fallen.

With about 45% of net employment growth in the UK’s tech sector coming from overseas workers, and with the region’s digital skills gap growing, it will take more than an increase in available visas to meet the demand for tech talent.

Read more about tech skills

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Many have blamed the UK’s decision to leave the EU for the drop in the number of people who want to live and work in the UK.

Sarah Main, executive director of CaSE (Campaign for Science and Engineering), said the government’s decision has addressed the “immediate crisis” of thousands of eligible specialists being turned away, but in the future the UK needs a “streamlined, proportionate migration system, along with a global charm offensive, to attract the most talented people to the UK”.

But encouraging more skilled workers to the UK is not a silver bullet to bridge the skills gap, especially as the number of roles advertised in the tech sector is increasing each year.

Not only has Brexit created uncertainty for businesses that do not know what a post-Brexit world will look like, it has also reinforced the need for home-grown skills to lessen the impact that leaving the EU might have on an already squeezed pool of available tech talent.

CIOs across the UK are focused on making sure they have the talent they need after Brexit in order to continue with plans for digital transformation, and the government has developed several initiatives to try to make sure these skills are available in the UK.

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, said the exemption of NHS workers from the Tier 2 visa cap and the introduction of the startup visa illustrate the government’s willingness to listen to what tech companies need.

But Shaw warned that “tens of thousands of international tech workers will be needed to meet our aim of one million tech employees in London by 2023”, and that this move is “the start, not the solution”.

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