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Ministers miss deadline to bring in English tests for EU doctors

By Edward Davie

Exclusive: GPs have expressed concern after ministers delayed the introduction of strengthened English language checks for EU doctors seeking to work in the NHS, as Government lawyers search for a way of imposing them through existing legislation.

Pulse understands that ministers are confident they can 'strengthen' the requirements for language competence checks without the need for changes to the law – a key sticking point which has delayed the introduction of formal checks for EU doctors.

A Department of Health progress update on its implementation of structural reform shows the options for a new system are 'not complete' despite the DH being set a deadline of April 2011.

One of the actions identified in the plan is to 'develop options, in collaboration with the General Medical Council and European Commission, to strengthen the language competence checks of European Economic Area migrant doctors seeking to work in the NHS.'

The document flags up the April 2011 target as ‘not complete', but added: 'Work is underway on which legal advice is currently being sought.'

PCOs have a legal duty to verify the language skills of doctors on their performers lists are adequate to provide the services for which they are being employed, and can test for language when hiring EU doctors from outside the UK.

But a Pulse investigation in October found that just a quarter of EU doctors on performers lists had undergone language tests, and fewer than one doctor in five had undergone tests of their clinical competency.

Both the GMC and the BMA have called for urgent reform of EU law that apparently prevents the GMC from assessing the clinical competence and language skills of foreign doctors from the EU, as it does for those from outside Europe.

A DH spokesperson said: 'The GMC and DH have developed options to improve the current system and are currently considering the legal implications of these options.'

A GMC spokesperson told Pulse the regulator hoped for a solution 'sooner rather than later.'

Dr Stuart Gray, a GP in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, whose father David was killed by an overdose of diamorphine by German locum Dr Daniel Ubani on his first GP out-of-hours shift in the UK, told Pulse that he had been assured by health secretary Andrew Lansley that DH lawyers believed language tests could be approved even under current laws and regulation.

'It is frustrating, but these things do take time and it seems to be moving in the right direction,' he said.

Dr Una Coales, a GP in Stockwell, London, and a RCGP council member who runs a communications skills course for GPs, called for swifter action.

'As an American with English as a first language I had to take the professional and linguistic assessments board test when I came to this country in 1993. I was shocked that EU nationals without English did not have to do the same and was sure this would cause problems.'

'The DH and the European Commission need to get on with this as a matter of urgency,' she said.

Scroll down to 'Related Files' to see a scan of the original DoH document.

Dr Stuart Gray DH document on structural reforms, April 2011