Fury at European commission's plans that would allow EU doctors to register in UK without tests on English or skills
The UK's medical regulators have warned that patient safety is at risk because, despite changes to rules on the movement of labour proposed by the European commission on Monday, EU doctors will still be able to register in the UK without being tested on their English or medical competence.
Although the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has already made clear he will strengthen NHS employers' powers to check on medics' language skills under measures not bound by EU laws, the General Medical Council (GMC) is furious that it will first have to recognise doctors' qualifications without giving them the same checks that are applied in the case of doctors from other parts of the world who are seeking work in Britain.
The GMC recently revealed that a foreign doctor's husband contacted them on her behalf to register her for work because she could not speak English.
The government and healthcare bodies have been pressing for changes for more than two years after the Guardian revealed how Daniel Ubani, a German doctor, accidentally killed a patient on his first UK locum shift by administering a massive overdose of painkillers. He was subsequently ruled incompetent by a coroner and struck off the UK register, although he is still able to practise in Germany.
The proposals for changes to the directive that governs the mutual recognition of professional qualifications will take years to make their way through the EU decision-making process. Member states will have to ratify them by 2014, and peers recently pointed out they might not take affect until 2017. The proposals say doctors and other healthcare professionals can face competence checks by authorities after registration although it is not clear who would carry these out on self-employed people.
The GMC's chief executive, Niall Dickson, said serious concerns remained. "It remains our view that the final directive should provide greater safeguards for patients. Over the coming months we will continue work with the UK government, MEPs, other regulators, and EU institutions to ensure that the final version of the directive focuses on protecting patients."
Lansley said: "For too long patients have been let down by lax EU rules which have allowed doctors to operate in the UK without the necessary safeguards. That's why I am bringing in new rules on checking doctors' language skills and new powers to take action against doctors who can't speak English properly."
Commission plans for better sharing of information about the doctors that come to work in the UK were "steps in the right direction", said Lansley, "but we need to understand more of the detail behind them. For example, we would need to be convinced that a common European professional card would bring tangible benefits and proper checking systems.
"Our overriding concern must be to protect patients from healthcare professionals who may not be properly skilled to do the job and we will do everything we can to work with the EU to achieve this." Guardian