The National Health Service is to recruit scores of trainee doctors from India and waive normal competency tests to try to plug staff shortages in A&E departments.
Health officials will interview dozens of overseas medics using Skype video-link next week in order to tackle an NHS staffing crisis that has left almost half of specialist training places for casualty doctors unfilled for the past three years.
Patients groups yesterday raised fears that safety could be compromised by "panic measures" to fill the vacancies, which mean that the trainee doctors from India will be able to work in the UK without undertaking the exams normally required for international candidates.
NHS officials have set up an assessment centre in New Delhi and are considering 150 applications from Indian doctors.
Health Education England said the programme hopes to recruit at least 50 trainee doctors, who will continue their specialist training in Britain before returning to India in four years' time.
The recruitment drive comes amid increasing concern about the standards required for overseas doctors to work in the UK. Last week a study by University College London found that half of all foreign doctors practising in Britain would fail international competency tests if they were held to the same standard as UK colleagues.
But under new plans to tackle urgent staff shortages in casualty units, the Indian recruits will be able to work in the UK without taking the tests. During the past three years, 368 of 835 posts for specialist A&E training have not been filled, with growing numbers of trainees choosing other specialities or emigrating abroad. Senior colleagues warn units are becoming "like war zones".
Britain's most senior A&E doctor said the plans were desperate, but were required to save the NHS from a spiralling crisis.
Dr Clifford Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said: "The pressures are heaped on A&E; we currently have the worst doctor-to-patient ratio that we have ever had. Having failed to recruit for the past three years, I think we have little option other than to take steps like this because otherwise the situation can only get worse."
To work in the UK, doctors from outside the EU are normally required to undertake exams. But health officials said that as medical training in India follows the same curriculum as the UK, successful candidates will not have to undergo the exams, although they will take language tests.
Peter Walsh, chief executive of safety campaigners Action against Medical Accidents, said: "I can see that the situation is urgent, but we really need to avoid being forced to take the sorts of panic measures which could compromise patient safety."
Last year, a study found the number of young doctors trained in the UK or Ireland working in Australian A&E departments has risen by 69 per cent in the past five years.