The NHS has been forced to pay out more than £15m in immigration fees to the Home Office since 2017 so that the health service has enough specialist staff.
Data obtained by the Labour Party under Freedom of Information laws shows that 52 NHS trusts have paid a combined total of £15,549,944 to meet the government’s own "immigration skills charge" over the past three years.
The charge is levied on organisations that employ foreign workers coming to the UK for six months or more.
It means a small or charitable organisation must pay £364 for the first 12 months someone is here, while larger sponsors are hit by a £1,000 bill.
Extensions can then add further costs to an employer, and the data show that Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust has been the worst hit, coughing up more than £2m in charges since 2017.
Three trusts have paid over £1m over the past three years, with Barts Health NHS Trust and University Hospital Southampton NHS Trust forking out more than £1.2m in fees each during the same time period.
Seizing on the figures, Labour’s shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch said: “The immigration skills charge is a stealth tax on our NHS, which is nothing short of an outrage.
“Local NHS trusts require specialists from overseas, yet the Tories are punishing hospital budgets for their own failure to train enough skilled staff.
“The irrationality of the immigration skills charge for NHS trusts has been underlined by the coronavirus pandemic.”
The opposition frontbencher added: “The Conservative government should be doing all they can to support the NHS. Instead, they are presenting trusts with an unenviable choice: either leave life-saving specialist roles unfilled, or fork out expensive fees for overseas staff.”
But a government spokesperson said: “Right across the immigration system we are supporting frontline healthcare staff through initiatives such as visa extensions and the creation of the bereavement scheme.”
They added: “We’ve already taken steps to support the NHS during the pandemic by removing the skills charge for employers when automatically renewing visas.
“Our new points-based immigration system, for introduction from January 2021, will go even further to make sure the NHS and wider health and care sector can continue to access the best and brightest talent from across the world.”
The row comes after the government was forced to exempt NHS and social care staff from the separate immigration health surcharge, which sees all workers coming to the UK from outside the European Economic Area asked to pay £400 towards the running of the NHS.
Ministers have since vowed to refund those who have paid the charge since it was axed for NHS and care staff on May 21.
Matt Honeycombe-Foster is acting editor of CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.