A regional medical practice has been forced to close its doors to new patients due to the loss of a beloved GP, who left New Zealand after a year in limbo in the residency queue.
Due to Covid's impact on the immigration office, the Government suspended Expressions of Interest (EOI) selections for the skilled migrant category (SMC) in 2020.
Ōtaki GP Dr Harding Richards, originally from Wales, left New Zealand last month, while waiting for the invitation to lodge an Expression of Interest.
Ōtaki Medical Centre chief executive Kiwa Raureti said Richards had been a skilled GP and "conscientious" team player, with a total of 1354 patients registered to him.
"What this means is that we'll struggle to cope with our current patient load.
"As a result we've done something that we have not wanted to do for years which is to close our books to new registration."
With just two other fulltime GPs, Raureti said they were no longer in a position to take on new patients, even those within the Ōtaki area.
Raureti said Richards - "young and energetic" in his mid-30s - had been the kind of team member they had always wanted, and they had hoped he would have a long career at the practice.
"Part of our plan was to lock him into Ōtaki by letting him purchase part of the practice and he was quite keen to do that."
He said Richards and his partner had left because without a clear path to residency, they could not see a future in New Zealand.
"They weren't going to get an invitation to lodge an expression of interest and so they weren't going to get their residency, which meant they couldn't buy a house."
With a shortage of GPs trained in New Zealand keen to work in the regions, Ōtaki's loss of a young skilled doctor hit even harder.
"We struggle to find New Zealand-trained GPs, and the chances of recruiting for his position in NZ is next to zero," Raureti said.
"Currently I'm talking with recruiting agents in Scotland and other people that might recruit from Singapore."
Efforts made by the medical practice to have a special exemption made for Richards had been declined by Immigration New Zealand (INZ) in February, Raureti said.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi announcing new family reunification border exceptions during a press conference at the Beehive in April. (Photo / Mark Mitchell)
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said in a statement that the Government acknowledged the impact the suspension of EOIs was having on individuals in the residency queue, and they were working through advice on when and how to re-open selection.
No decision had been made yet.
He said applications for skilled residence had "risen significantly" over the past few years resulting in longer decision times for applications, but he said INZ was committed to processing visa applications as quickly as possible.
"INZ continues to look at ways to streamline processing of these applications and reduce the number of applications in the queue," he said.
"Suspending EOI selections, while still allowing individuals to submit an EOI, was considered the most pragmatic approach."
National's immigration spokeswoman Erica Stanford said the case of Ōtaki Medical centre was not an isolated one, with the freeze on the residency queue forcing something of an exodus of essential healthcare workers from New Zealand.
National Party immigration spokeswoman and MP for East Coast Bays Erica Stanford. (Photo / Mark Mitchell)
An online petition that has garnered more than 2500 signatures calls for the Government to revoke its freeze on the selection of Expression of Interest for Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) Resident Visa.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Faafoi, the healthcare professionals stated there were at least 235 doctors and 901 nurses in the EOI pool who faced the prospect of leaving the country.
Stanford said she had been contacted by half a dozen health care professionals – some of whom were couples – considering leaving New Zealand due to the uncertainty around residency.
"These highly skilled people – like doctors and engineers and teachers – they've got options.
"They don't need to be here, they could be anywhere in the world, and right now are being poached by the Australians, the Canadians and even by the UK for better pay, better opportunities, but also – critically – a pathway to residency and certainty."
She said New Zealand's shortage of GPs was even more critical in the regions, where it could be challenging to entice Kiwi graduates.
"There are regions like Ōtaki where you can't get in to see your GP for a number of weeks because there just aren't enough GPs.
"Once we get these highly skilled migrants there, we should be doing everything we can to hold on to them."
"Prioritising their residency and turning them into Kiwis as quickly as we can, saying 'thank you for choosing New Zealand, thank you for choosing the regions, you're welcome here'."
"But actually the message we're sending them now is you're not welcome, we don't value you and actually we don't care that you leave."