Home Secretary Sajid Javid has admitted there will be no “specific target” for reducing the numbers of immigrants coming into the country in his new post-Brexit migration plan.

Instead the white paper published today talks only about reducing net migration to “sustainable levels”, apparently marking the end of the “tens of thousands” target championed by Theresa May.

The Independent – which has run the Drop the Target campaign for over two years – first revealed the shift earlier this week, with Mr Javid confirming its absence from his new plan on Wednesday.

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Downing Street argued that the target is still a manifesto commitment, but with Ms May unlikely to take the party into the next election, the chances of it remaining so in the future appear dead.

There has been a heated row over the white paper for the UK’s new immigration system, with Ms May’s team wishing to frame it as a crackdown on low-skilled migration and Mr Javid and others seeking to present it as move to a more intelligent approach.

Interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Mr Javid denied the government was abandoning commitments in the Conservative manifesto to cut immigration – the tens of thousands target has appeared in every one since 2010.

But he refused several times to repeat the target first set by David Cameron to get annual net migration down below 100,000 – something successive administrations have failed to meet.

He said: “There is no specific target. It will be a system that will bring net migration down to more sustainable levels.

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“If you look at the current level of migration, the latest stats show 273,000. Most people agree that is very high, certainly by historical standards. In the last two decades it has been in the hundreds of thousands. If you go back further than that it was much lower.

“What we want to do is bring it to a level where it is sustainable in the sense that it meets first our economic need and at the same time though it is not too high a burden on our communities or on our infrastructure.”

Mr Javid is publishing a long-awaited white paper setting out the government’s plans for a post-Brexit immigration system, ending freedom of movement.

Under the blueprint, there will be a new visa route for skilled workers and no cap on high-skilled professions such as doctors and engineers.

He confirmed the government intended to set a minimum salary requirement for higher-skilled workers applying for five-year visas.

However, after the independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommended a £30,000 threshold, he said they would be consulting further on what the level should be.

“We are not setting the exact threshold today. There will be a threshold. The MAC suggested it should be £30,000,” he said.

“That is their view and it is based on their evidence and it is very important for us to listen to that. It is equally important to listen to business to find the right threshold.

“We will consult further on whether it is £30,000 or thereabouts. What is important is that it is the principle that the MAC set out, which is absolutely right, where we want to focus on high skills.”

The decision to consult further follows a bitter Cabinet battle over what the threshold should be amid warnings from employers that they will struggle to recruit staff they need if it is set too high.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers representing NHS trusts, said the organisation was “deeply concerned” about the impact on the health services.

“High skills does not equal high pay,” she told the Today programme.

“You have got starting salaries for nurses at £23,000 – also for paramedics, midwives. Junior doctors’ starting salaries at £27,000, healthcare assistants at £17,000, all coming in way below that £30,000 cap.

“It is not just health workers, it is social care as well. We have to remember where the skills lay. They lay in those staff under £30,000.”

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