Immigration rules capping the number of foreign medics working in the UK will be relaxed to allow the NHS to recruit more staff.
Downing Street confirmed that the change will come into effect immediately once new regulations are laid by the Home Office later this week.
Non-EU doctors and nurses will be excluded from a cap on skilled worker visas initially imposed by Theresa May when she was home secretary.
The cap currently restricts “tier two” visas for non-EU workers to 20,700 people per year, rules which have been criticised amid growing pressures on the NHS and escalating patient demand.
Amid speculation that the move might represent a step towards softening the Government’s target to get annual net migration below 100,000, Downing Street stressed that the Prime Minister remains committed to reducing the number to “sustainable” levels.
Mrs May’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister will in due course be setting out our long-term plan for the NHS.
“An important part of that is making sure that the NHS has more highly-skilled doctors and nurses to deliver outstanding patient care.
“What we will be announcing is that doctors and nurses are being excluded from the cap on skilled worker visas.
“That means more staff on our hospital wards, higher standards and safer patient care.”
Asked whether the move would make the Government’s net migration target harder to hit, the spokesman said: “Net migration is falling.
“We remain absolutely committed to bringing it down to sustainable levels.
“There has been a particular demand in this area and we are responding to this demand as part of our long-term plan for the NHS.”
Future numbers of visas for non-EU medics would be dictated by “the requirements of the NHS”, and it will be for health managers to determine how many are needed.
The removal of doctors and nurses from the tier two total will have the knock-on effect of freeing up places for other professions, the spokesman confirmed.
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) said the announcement would be a “much-needed victory for common sense and patient care”.
Earlier this month, chairwoman Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard urged Home Secretary Sajid Javid to relax immigration rules, warning there were concerning cases where foreign GPs had been affected by the “hostile environment” policies first brought in by Mrs May.
The British Medical Journal has said that between December 2017 and March 2018 more than 1,500 visa applications from doctors with job offers in the UK were refused as a result of the cap on workers from outside the European Economic Area.
Overseas doctors make an invaluable contribution to our health service and, at a time when there are thousands of unfilled vacancies within the NHS, it is absurd that the Government should stop experienced and talented healthcare professionals coming to work here and provide much-needed care for patientsDr Chaand Nagpaul
Prof Stokes-Lampard said: “While we await the details of the Home Secretary’s expected announcement, lifting the cap of tier two visas for doctors and nurses wanting to work in the NHS would be a fantastic and much-needed victory for common sense and patient care, and something that the college, along with organisations across medicine, has been pushing hard for.”
She added: “The NHS, general practice included, has long been supported by the skills and hard work of doctors and other healthcare professionals from overseas.
“Mindful of similar pressures in other countries, we would welcome any appropriately-trained doctor who wants to work in UK general practice to help us deliver care to over one million patients a day.”
The BMA said a change in the rules would “be welcome relief to doctors and patients, who have witnessed first hand the damage that this policy has caused”.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “Overseas doctors make an invaluable contribution to our health service and, at a time when there are thousands of unfilled vacancies within the NHS, it is absurd that the Government should stop experienced and talented healthcare professionals coming to work here and provide much-needed care for patients.
“We await a full announcement from the Home Secretary tomorrow and will be scrutinising the details very carefully.”
At the start of June, Mr Javid signalled there could be a softer approach to immigration policy under his leadership at the Home Office, including looking again at the cap on “tier two visas”.
A spokesman for Mrs May said visa routes were “always under review”, following Mr Javid’s comments on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
The Telegraph reported that a number of Cabinet ministers had joined Mr Javid to convince the Prime Minister to exclude medical staff from the tier two cap.
The chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, Labour MP Yvette Cooper said: “This is the right decision. For months doctors and nurses the NHS needs have been turned away – including over 1,500 doctors with job offers already.
“But there are now so many problems with the immigration system, the Home Secretary must not stop here. The net migration target regime just isn’t working and should be replaced – including by removing students from the target straight away.”
The immigration policy director at business lobby group London First, Mark Hilton, described the decision as “a step in the right direction”, but added: “It’s time for Government to accept that arbitrary caps and targets don’t work.”
The Home Office declined to comment.