NEW UK Government plans for increased thresholds on migrant earnings could compromise patient safety and cost the NHS tens of millions of pounds, a leading nursing union has warned.

The new immigration measures, which apply to people from outside of the European Economic Area (EEA), specify that migrants must be earning at least £35,000 a year to stay in the UK for more than six years, meaning thousands of nurses would have to return to their home countries.

The Tier 2 visa system currently dictates that applicants wishing to stay for longer than six years must have been offered a job with a salary of at least £20,800, although for some professions the figure is already more than £30,000.

If the threshold is raised to £35,000, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) claims NHS Scotland could lose hundreds of staff when it says the seven-day health service is already at risk.

RCN estimated that up to 3,365 nurses across the UK could potentially be affected, adding that if international recruitment continues at the same rate, that figure could double by the year 2020.

The union said that not only would this lead to further nurse shortages in the NHS, it would mean that the estimated £20m-plus spent on recruitment will have been wasted.

Despite calls from both sides of the Border, the UK Government has refused to place nursing on the Shortage

Occupation List, which would allow incoming migrants to bypass the salary thresholds due to an immediate demand for workers.

The Migration Advisory Committee rejected the bid to include nursing in the 2015 list, which includes engineers, game designers, 3D animators, skilled classical ballet dancers and orchestral musicians.

RCN General Secretary Dr Peter Carter said any increase in threshold would intensify the current problems the service faces.

He said: “The immigration rules for healthcare workers will cause chaos for the NHS and other care services. At a time when demand is increasing, the UK is perversely making it harder to employ staff from overseas.

“The UK will be sending away nurses who have contributed to the health service for six years. Losing their skills and knowledge and then having to start the cycle again and recruit to replace them is completely illogical.

“The only way for the UK to regain control over its own health service workforce is by training more nurses. Thirty seven thousand potential nursing students were turned away last year.”

Net migration in 2014 was at a total of 318,000 people, a 10-year high, despite

David Cameron promising he would bring the figure down to less than 100,000 in 2010.

Laying out the plans during Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron said the increased thresholds would stop foreign nationals undercutting British workers’ wages.

The threshold system came under scrutiny earlier this year after the Home Office decided to pursue the deportation of musician and lecturer Steve Forman.

The US-born musician, who has lived in Scotland since 2007, failed to meet the minimum annual salary for a lecturer – £31,000 – but was supported by nearly 4000 people who signed a petition against the decision.

The 68-year-old worked with artists such as Pink Floyd before taking the position of lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, a position he has held for almost five years.

He has received support from the Scottish Government, with SNP MP Patrick Grady raising the issue at PMQ’s this month.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “This Government is committed to giving nurses the support they need to meet the increasing demands on our health service. Scotland has a long tradition of welcoming nurses from overseas.

“Scotland’s health services provide high-quality work opportunities for those who have achieved their relevant training overseas, where employers are satisfied such individuals meet the required experience and employment conditions.

He added: “The recruitment and retention of staff in NHS Scotland is a matter for individual boards and the Scottish Government has no central policy on the recruitment of staff outwith the UK. Immigration is a reserved matter, and Scotland must comply with the UK Government on all immigration rules.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “The Government wants to reduce the demand for migrant labour. We changed the settlement rules in 2011 to break the link between coming to work in the UK and staying here permanently. From 2016, non-EEA workers will need to earn at least £35,000 to settle in the UK for longer than six years.”

“There are exemptions for occupations where the UK has a shortage – but the independent Migration Advisory Committee recommended against adding nurses to the Shortage Occupation List after taking evidence from groups including the Royal College of Nursing.”