Theresa May’s approach to immigration policy faced further questions amid reports she rejected pleas from Cabinet colleagues to ease restrictions on recruiting doctors from overseas.
The Prime Minister’s actions in Number 10 and her previous role as home secretary have come under intense scrutiny following the Windrush generation scandal.
Her efforts to create a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants and measures aimed at reducing net legal migration have both been challenged.
New Home Secretary Sajid Javid has signalled a break from her past by distancing himself from the use of the “hostile environment” phrase, preferring the term “compliant environment”.
And a report in the Evening Standard suggested that as part of the plan to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands, Mrs May “refused to budge” over calls to lift a cap on the number of skilled workers allowed to come to the UK.
Health chiefs have warned that limits on the number of visas issued to doctors from countries outside the European Economic Area are contributing to rota gaps and delays in patients receiving care.
NHS Employers said there have been 400 cases of blocked visas since December.
The Evening Standard said Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and former home secretary Amber Rudd had urged the Prime Minister to lift the quota for cases such as NHS doctors, while Business Secretary Greg Clark wanted more exceptions for firms facing shortages of specialist skills.
A Whitehall source told the newspaper: “I think Jeremy and Amber were on the same page on this but No 10 were in a different place entirely.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman defended the Tier 2 visa regime and stressed it was always closely monitored.
“It remains essential that we have control in our immigration system and it works in the national interest,” the spokesman said.
“We are monitoring the situation in relation to visa applications for doctors, including the monthly limits through the Tier 2 visa route.
“Around one third of all Tier 2 places go to the NHS and investing in our workforce will continue to be a top priority.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “It makes no sense whatsoever that the Government is turning away trained doctors who want to come and work here in the UK.
“Theresa May’s hostile environment policy is now directly damaging NHS patient care.”
He said the visa rules “clearly aren’t working in the best interests of NHS patients”.
This is where Theresa May's hostile environment leads. And will continue until the policy is scrapped. pic.twitter.com/FqOjqBCKWH— Diane Abbott MP (@HackneyAbbott) May 1, 2018
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “The Tories’ hostile environment policy is not confined to illegal immigrants. And it is making us all worse off.”
Mr Javid used his first day as Home Secretary on Monday to distance himself from his predecessors, promising to “do right” by the Windrush generation.
Asked about the “hostile environment” approach, Mr Javid said: “I think it is a phrase that is unhelpful and it does not represent our values as a country.”
Downing Street insisted there was no split between Mr Javid and Mrs May.
“The new Home Secretary said it is right that we have a compliant environment and the Prime Minister absolutely agrees with that,” the spokesman said.