Migrant workers have been essential to the operations of the NHS ever since its inception in 1948. Over the decades, many programmes have been used to encourage and find overseas workers and help them migrate to the UK to be employed in the healthcare system, demonstrating our governments acknowledgment of how important they are. As early as 1949, campaigns were made by the UK government in the Caribbean to recruit NHS staff, through advertisements in local newspapers.
However, throughout the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have argued that migrant workers have not been given the rightful respect or recognition in which they truly deserve. Many of them have been putting their lives on the line every single day fighting against a deadly virus, yet still face immigration insecurity.
There are currently 170,000 overseas NHS workers from 200 countries residing within the UK, many of which have to apply every year for five years to renew their work visas. Some are required to have employers provide certificates of sponsorship for them, and if they do not, then they can be deported at any time despite their critical service to the country. These certificates are necessary for those applying for skilled worker visas, to prove that the conditions of the visa have been met. If they are not signed it becomes increasingly difficult for migrants to apply for the visa needed to remain in the UK. As the pandemic has raged on since March 2020, support for a Private Member’s Bill which would grant migrant NHS workers indefinite leave to remain has grown.
Recent Government Action
In 2019, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced a new “NHS visa” which would make it significantly easier for doctors and nurses from around the world to work in the UK. This was pre-pandemic, and is said to have been established due to fears that the NHS would not be able to attract staff after Brexit, showcasing how important migrant workers are to our health service. In April 2020, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced that the Immigration Health Surcharge was under review. This measure essentially means that migrant workers pay to use the NHS on top of to the taxes that they pay in the UK.
However, following the outbreak of COVID the UK Government decided to abolish such fees as a gesture of appreciation for the service NHS workers were providing. Although this initially seems positive, studies have found that due to differing immigration statuses, there were only 12% of migrant workers paying the surcharge. This means that despite this measure, it did not alleviate any widespread issues for many migrant workers .
Furthermore, in the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, the Government announced that all non-EU migrant workers in the health sector whose work visas were due to expire would have it extended for another year with no fee. The scheme is expected to end in March 2021, leaving many migrant doctors, nurses and paramedics in a position where they must spend hundreds of pounds and weeks applying for new visas from there on.
This seems like an extreme disservice to the workers who have carried the country through the pandemic, who are then having to spend their own hard-earned money just to try and remain in the country to continue with their service. Whilst it could be argued that part of being a migrant is paying for a visa, it is difficult to see what has changed, given that the Government waived payments up until March 2021, but the pandemic has not ended at this time. If the Government’s justification for waiving the visa application deadline is the service provided by migrant workers during the pandemic, this policy should remain until the pandemic is over.
The Private Member’s Bill
In November 2019, the Immigration (Health and Social Care Staff) Bill 2019-21 was put forward, which would offer migrant healthcare workers indefinite leave to remain. This is similar to the actions taken in countries such as France, who are granting full citizenship to frontline migrant workers out of gratitude for their commitment during the pandemic. The Bill is supported by the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing, the Doctors Association UK, Independent Age and Unison, and MPs are thought to have received upwards of 7,400 letters of advocacy for the bill.
Unfortunately, the second reading of the bill was delayed in January 2021 due to the House of Commons’ COVID safety rules. The Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine, who sponsored the Bill, has since called on the Government to consider debating the bill remotely, due to the urgency of its nature. She said: “I make no bones about the fact that I would like the government to recognise the contribution made by the NHS workers — the foreign nationals – who have done so much for this country in this crisis.”.
What Must Be Done
Support for migrant NHS workers must be given during this period. The impact that the current crisis has had on their lives has been unprecedented. The lack of commitment by the Government to protecting their immigration status in these circumstances has had a serious impact on morale, as for many that was the light at the end of the tunnel for their anxieties and worries. In an interview, Eva Omondi, an NHS migrant worker, stated that the current environment is “emotionally draining” and that she feels “betrayed” by the governments lack of dedication to supporting healthcare workers. Some workers have also reported fears that catching COVID may lead to their deportation, as the potential of the inability to work would put their immigration status at serious risk. For frontline workers during a pandemic, this is inhumane. No worker who is putting their life at risk should be punished for contracting a deadly virus.
Without clear support for the Bill being demonstrated, the Government could continue to delay the process of second and third readings. This would extend past the March 31st deadline for the visa extensions, leaving many migrant workers once again in insecure environments with no security.
Moral debates have been popular during the pandemic crisis. Many people have argued that doing what is right morally is necessary. In this case, it is the Government’s moral obligation to reward migrant NHS workers for their vital service. Whilst it may be argued that the Government and an immigration system should not ‘reward’ or ‘punish’ migrants, the reality is that the Government encourages migrants to prove themselves before becoming citizens, whether it be through a test to demonstrate language proficiency and cultural knowledge, or through being able to find employment.
Under this umbrella, it is clear that migrant healthcare workers are definitely ‘proving themselves’ through put their life on the line during this pandemic. If this sort of service is not enough for the Government to grant indefinite leave to remain, then it is difficult to see what would be. It is evident that the measures proposed in this Bill are the right thing to do.
Aaron Gates-Lincoln is Political Advisor at Imminews
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