Patients are at risk because thousands of EU doctors can work in the UK without basic safety checks, a watchdog warns.
Niall Dickson, head of the General Medical Council, said the loophole should be closed after Brexit and labelled it a ‘real weakness’ when it comes to protecting the public.
And he claimed that repeated attempts to persuade EU officials to let Britain introduce the checks had always been flatly rejected.
Mr Dickson said: ‘I’m not happy with the European doctor situation, and haven’t been for many years.
‘Some European doctors – because we haven’t checked their competency – may struggle when they practise here and that could put patients at risk. Medicine is very culturally specific. Doctors who come from other cultures can find it a significant challenge practising in the UK.
‘We are able to assess their language skills but we cannot check their competency to practise. That’s just a reality.’
European laws prevent the watchdog, which regulates doctors working in Britain, from testing the medical skills of those from the EU as this would impede their right to freedom of movement.
Instead, the GMC must automatically assume applicants from all other member states are just as competent as British-trained doctors.
However, the watchdog’s own figures show that EU doctors are twice as likely to be struck off, suspended or given a warning than those from the UK.
The risks to patients are likely to increase as the NHS is becoming increasingly reliant on overseas doctors to fill understaffed hospitals and surgeries.
Mr Dickson urged the Government to use Brexit negotiations to allow the GMC to carry out the checks, free from the shackles of EU law. Doctors from elsewhere in the world, including the US and Australia, must do a three-hour written exam and half-day practical test if they want to work in the UK.
There are just over 30,500 EU doctors on the GMC’s register who are licensed to work in Britain, and another 3,500 arrive each year.
A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘Patient safety is of the utmost importance, and we expect all healthcare professionals working in the UK to have a good command of the English language.
‘That is why we have tough rules, allowing individual employers to test employees at and beyond the initial point of employment.’
Two years ago – following a lengthy battle – the regulator persuaded the European Commission to allow it to impose language checks on EU doctors amid concerns many could not speak basic English. But campaigners say it is far more important that the GMC can check their medical skills.
Mr Dickson, who steps down next month, said the GMC’s attempts to enforce these tests for EU doctors had always been rejected by the European Commission.
‘We have to accept their primary medical qualification and we have to accept it’s equivalent to a UK medical qualification and we must give them a registration and a licence,’ he said. ‘It’s European law. The argument is that free movement of labour is a key principle within the European Union.’
He continued: ‘I should add that many of the doctors who have come here have been extremely good and have helped our system and have delivered fantastic care. We absolutely want to protect their position post-Brexit.’
EU law says all European medical degrees are equivalent – whether from the UK, Germany, Greece or Romania, for example.
The GMC is obliged to assume that as long as a doctor has done the same amount of training as a medical student here – five to six years – they are just as competent.
But Mr Dickson said this wasn’t a fair assumption, adding: ‘We’re not saying our medical training is better than anyone else’s – we think it is good – it is also the fact that [they are] moving across borders.
‘Doctors are like flowers, if you uproot them, bung them out and don’t do anything with them that can cause problems. Not having the regulator being able to check competency is a real weakness in our regulatory defences.’
Earlier this month the GMC made the checks even tougher for non-EU foreign doctors, and applicants must now prove they are compassionate and understanding.
New rules also state they can only take the test a maximum of four times.
GMC figures for 2011 to 2015 show that just 0.55 per cent of doctors who qualified in the UK were struck off, suspended or given a warning.
This compares with 1.01 per cent from the EU and 1.1 per cent from elsewhere in the world.
Source: Daily Mail