Boris Johnson is facing a backlash over his plans to fast-track visas for the world’s leading scientists, as a Nobel Laureate warned of turmoil for “many years” after a no-deal Brexit.

The physicist Sir Andre Geim, whose work in the discovery of graphene the prime minister yesterday praised, said “scientists are not fools”, in a response to Mr Johnson’s comments.

The PM’s proposals were also seized on by the opposition parties at Westminster, with Labour describing the policy as a “sticking plaster to cover the gaping wound” that will be a no-deal Brexit.

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The intervention comes after ministers announced a relaxation of Theresa May’s strict immigration policies as Mr Johnson set out to abolish caps for individuals considered exceptionally talented in their field.

Unveiling his plans, the prime minister said he wanted to ensure the UK’s immigration system attracted “the very best minds from around the world” as Britain prepares to leave the EU.

During a visit to the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire, Mr Johnson said: “Britain has a proud history of innovation, with homegrown inventions spanning from the humble bicycle to the lightbulb.

“We were home to the world’s first national DNA database, we discovered graphene, and our cutting-edge scientists should be proud to follow in the footsteps of titans like Ada Lovelace and Nobel Laureates Francis Crick and Peter Higgs.”

The fast-track immigration route will be designed to attract researchers and specialists working in science, engineering and technology, he added. 

Options that the government said could be discussed with institutions and universities include abolishing the 2,000-per-year cap on the number of “tier one exceptional talent” visas.

But Sir Andre Geim warned of the dangers to the science sector of the threat of a no-deal Brexit from Mr Johnson’s administration.

He told The Times: “The government may try and reduce the barriers to entry for scientists but they cannot reduce turmoil that would be caused to science in the UK by a no-deal Brexit.

“Scientists are not fools. They know that turmoil is inevitable for many years.”

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said: “The public cannot be hoodwinked into believing that a Home Office which upholds ‘hostile environment practices’, loses nearly three-quarters of immigration appeals in court and has failed miserably to register all EU nationals already resident in the UK has the leadership necessary to deliver such a scheme.”

Liberal Democrat MP Ed Davey, the party’s home affairs spokesman, said Mr Johnson’s proposals will not make up for the loss of free movement of people after Britain departs the European Union.

“Brexit would also take away the rights of British scientists to study and work in other EU countries, preventing the international collaborations that drive innovation and discovery,” he added.

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