Call for PLAB extension

by Tim Tonkin

The BMA has called for the visas of international doctors due to sit professional exams in the UK, to be extended until the end of the year.

Location: International
Published: Friday 5 June 2020
A colleague offers support to another colleague

The association has written to UKVI (UK Visas and Immigration) agency urging that the existing visa extension for overseas doctors currently based in the UK, which currently runs until 31 July, be further expanded until December 2020.

The plea comes after the GMC confirmed that it would be cancelling all remaining 2020 PLAB 2 (Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board) tests, an assessment that many overseas doctors must complete before they can practise in the UK.

The regulator has said that the PLAB 2, which consists of a series of practical assessments at a purpose-built test facility at the GMC’s headquarters in Manchester, cannot be staged safely and in line with Covid-19 social distancing measures.

Trapped doctors

In a letter to UKVI director general Abi Tierney, BMA council chair Chaand Nagpaul warned that the decision to cancel the tests would be hugely disruptive to overseas doctors who would potentially remain trapped in the UK unable to work and without financial support. 

He said: ‘This announcement will cause a great deal of concern to those international doctors who want to offer their vital skills and expertise to the NHS, but have this one final hurdle to cross, leaving them in limbo.

‘While it’s right that social distancing and safe workplaces are maintained, we urge the GMC to do everything in its power to ensure necessary changes are put in place so that these exams can resume as soon as possible – and it must prioritise those due to sit tests this summer once they do.

‘It is vital that visas are extended for the duration of this period – we will be writing to the Home Office to ensure that no doctor is forced to leave the country without having sat their exams.

He added: ‘The BMA is happy to provide support and guidance to any international members affected by this situation.’

Most doctors who have received their primary medical qualification outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) and who wish to work in the UK, must first complete a two-part assessment known as PLAB.

Window of opportunity

The first part of the assessment, which can be sat in dozens of countries around the world, involves a written exam. The second part of the test is a practical assessment which can only be undertaken at the GMC test centre and takes place only a few times each year.

Visas issued to doctors coming to the UK to take PLAB 2 normally last for six months and require that all assessments must be completed during that time period. 
Doctors unable to get a place on the exam or who need to re-sit will often have to return to their home countries to reapply for a fresh visa, a process that is costly and time consuming.

Confirming its decision today [4 June], the GMC said it had taken the ‘difficult decision’ to cancel all existing PLAB 2 exams, adding that it would seek to do everything possible to resume tests as soon as possible.

In a statement issued on its website, it said: ‘Like all organisations and people across the UK, we have to comply with guidance from the four UK governments on social distancing. That means we need to make some changes to the way we run PLAB, so that our tests are safe for everyone. 

‘The layout of our PLAB 2 test centre, which is in a multi-occupancy building, makes it very difficult for us to comply with the latest government guidance on social distancing and safe workplaces. Unfortunately, this means we’ve had to cancel all existing bookings for PLAB 2 in 2020.

‘We hope to restart PLAB 2 tests in autumn. We’ll let candidates know as soon as we reopen bookings. 

‘We’ve not taken this decision lightly, and appreciate the significant inconvenience this will cause, but your health and safety are our priority.’

The GMC has also advised that all doctors with an existing PLAB 2 booking for 2020 or who were due to sit PLAB 1 between June and November will be refunded, with the GMC saying it will seek to process all refunds within ten working days.

If you are an overseas doctor and would like more information and support, please visit the BMA’s Covid-19 support page.