LONDON - Britain said on Friday it would make it easier for migrants to move to the United Kingdom to work in the National Health Service (NHS), helping to offset a possible fall in numbers caused by the exit from the European Union.
The Conservative government is planning to bring in an Australian-style points-based system in 2021 after leaving the EU in a bid to get tighter control of immigration, an issue which commentators said was a major factor in Britons voting for Brexit three years ago.
The future of the NHS is one of the key issues in the campaign for Britain's general election next month.
About 153,000 of 1.2 million health workers are non-British, and critics have said the end of freedom of movement for EU citizens after Brexit would deprive the NHS, one of the world's largest employers, of a vital pool of workers.
At the same time, it was feared that many medical staff who come from other areas of the globe, especially nurses, would fail to meet the strict salary requirements of the new system. About 52,000 of current NHS staff are Asian nationals.
The government said the new NHS Visa would allow it to control immigration while ensuring there would not be a skills shortage for the health service.
The fast-track scheme would halve visa fees to 464 pounds ($595) and give applicants preferential treatment and faster decisions.
"These measures are part of our plan for an Australian-style points-based immigration system that allows us to control numbers while remaining open to vital professions like nurses," Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel said in a statement.
"That means the best of both worlds - attracting talent from around the world so our NHS continues to provide brilliant service while ensuring that it isn't put under strain by opening Britain's borders to the entire world."
The plan to relax rules for NHS staff comes after Britain said in August it would relax immigration rules to attract more scientists. (Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Stephen Addison)