Britain has hit its cap on visas for skilled non-European workers for an unprecedented third month in a row, deepening the staffing crisis facing the NHS and other key employers.
When the monthly quota was reached in December and January for the first time in seven years immigration lawyers had expected it would prove to be a blip, but they now fear it is turning into a long-term problem.
More than a third of the tier-2 work visas issued by the Home Office go to medical and other staff recruited to work in the NHS. Migration experts expect that among the first group to be turned away will be doctors and other healthcare staff, software developers and scientists.
The next set of quarterly immigration figures will be published on Thursday. They are expected to show increasing evidence of a “Brexodus” over the past year, with an accelerating decline in the numbers of EU nationals coming to work in Britain while increasing numbers return home.
The Home Office sent out hundreds of emails to UK employers and businesses last week telling them that their applications for the certificates of sponsorship required to recruit mostly highly skilled workers from outside the EU had been refused because they did not meet the minimum points score set for the February quota.
The cap on skilled worker numbers operates on an annual quota of 20,700 with a fixed number of spaces available each month. Until last December the monthly quota had only been exceeded in one month since the cap was introduced by Theresa May as home secretary in 2011.
The Home Office confirmed that the minimum salary for a job to qualify for a skilled work visa was normally £30,000, or £20,800 for a graduate recruit. However, in December it was set at £55,000 and in January tier-2 visa applications for jobs paying less than £46,000 a year were refused unless they were PhD-level roles or were for jobs on the official shortage occupation lists.
The points-based immigration system prioritises applicants according to their advertised salary, with the minimum annual pay changing according to the number of applicants above the quota and their points rating. This hits the NHS particularly hard.