Doctors’ and nurses’ leaders have written letters to Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Brown urging Britain and other G8 nations to stop poaching doctors and nurses from the poor nations of Africa and other continents.

British Medical Association Chairman James Johnson and Royal College of Nursing General Secretary Beverly Malone warn that the migration of healthcare workers from developing nations is not only claiming millions of lives, but also preventing the world’s poorest people from escaping poverty.

Johnson said yesterday that the consequences of poaching on the developing world were ‘absolutely catastrophic’. He added: ‘There are large areas of Africa where there are no health workers of any kind.’ He said Britain and other countries of the developed world ‘have helped themselves liberally to doctors and nurses from the developing world for very many years’.

The joint letters state: ‘In countries which already have severe shortages of healthcare workers (fewer than one health worker per 1,000 population), a further loss of such workers through premature death or migration is very likely to result in loss of health services and loss of life in the countries’ populations.’ They praise the UK government for taking a ‘strong moral lead’ on global poverty. But they warn that efforts to deal with HIV and other health crises in the developing world are being hampered by shortages of staff.

The letter to Tony Blair says: ‘The prevention and treatment of ill health are essential prerequisites to enable poor people to escape poverty. The lack of healthcare workers in developing countries, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa, is an emergency that demands urgent action.’

In a separate letter, the BMA and RCN leaders congratulate Gordon Brown for publicly acknowledging the importance of vaccination programmes in developing countries. But they warn that ‘one of the main barriers to achieving vaccination targets is likely to be a lack of healthcare professionals in the countries concerned’.

The World Health Organisation estimates that one million more healthcare workers are needed in sub-Saharan African countries if they are to meet basic health goals, such as reducing childhood and maternal mortality.

The joint letters also warn that the United States has a ‘projected deficit by 2020 of 200,000 doctors and 800,000 nurses’ and that ‘countries around the world, including the UK, are likely to lose substantial numbers of doctors and nurses to the USA.’

• Meanwhile, experts from the Royal Free Hospital, London, have warned the NHS shift system could be putting doctors and patients at risk. The EU working time directive cut junior doctors’ hours to a maximum of 13 a day, followed by an 11-hour break.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the experts warn doctors are becoming exhausted as trusts have responded by reviewing shift patterns, and as a result many trainees were working 91 hours over seven consecutive nights.

• Doctors have voiced concern about the growing use of foreign GPs to cover weekend shifts, after last year’s new GP contract has seen most UK doctors opt out of working after hours. Leading UK medics said patient care was being compromised because the GPs were unfamiliar with the NHS system.

Blair summonsed as witness

Prime Minister Blair has been summonsed to appear at a Weymouth court for the trial of a woman who refuses to pay her income tax in protest against the Iraq war.

Pat Blackburn’s son-in-law Sergeant Las Hehir, was killed in an American helicopter crash in Kuwait in March 2003. She refuses to pay more than £16,000 in owed tax until Blair resigns or apologises. The judge at her trial has backed her calls for the Prime Minister to appear as a witness.

Ms Blackburn has offered more than £500 to cover Blair’s loss of earnings and travel expenses for next Tuesday’s hearing.

Downing Street say they have passed the request onto their legal officers.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said yesterday: ‘We can confirm we have received the summons and it is being considered by our legal advisors. We cannot comment any further at this time.’

Sergeant Hehir, who died along with seven other British service personnel, left a wife, Sharon, and two sons, Oliver, now aged seven, and William, now aged five.