Migrant NHS workers deserve immigration security

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This guest post was written by Aaron Gates-Lincoln, writer for immigrationnews.co.uk

Migrant healthcare workers have been essential to the operations of our NHS ever since its 1948 inception. Since 1949, the government has introduced programmes and deals that encourage the migration of overseas workers to the UK on the basis of their employment in our healthcare service. They have always been vital, and remain that way to this day.

Therefore it is an outrage that the Government has failed to provide further security over immigration status for migrant NHS workers. 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 their visas extended for another year with no fee.

However, 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. The Government has not announced any plan to extend the visa scheme.

To add insult to injury, the Government cancelled a second reading of the Immigration (Health and Social Care Staff) Bill 2019-21, which would offer migrant healthcare workers indefinite leave to remain, due to the Common’s covid safety rules in January this year. 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.

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.

Backbone of the NHS

Currently, there are around 170,000 overseas healthcare workers from 200 countries residing in the UK. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, these workers have put their lives at risk for the health of others, and have carried and are still carrying the UK a year later, through a crisis. Despite this, many have argued that our migrant NHS workers have not received the recognition nor the appreciation that they truly deserve from the Government, especially during this period.

Large proportions of migrant healthcare workers are facing immigration insecurity. Most 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. As the pandemic has raged on since March 2020, support for the private member’s bill which would grant migrant NHS workers indefinite leave to remain has grown.

Recent Changes for Migrant Healthcare Workers

In 2019, 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. Immediately, this demonstrates that Johnson is aware how necessary migrant workers are to the operations of the NHS. Excuses that they are not essential simply cannot be made.

Then, in April 2020, Priti Patel [Home Secretary] announced that an Immigration Health Surcharge was under review, which would essentially mean migrant workers including NHS workers would be taxed twice to use the health service themselves. This was highly controversial, and frankly problematic, as it appears almost as a punishment for a group of people who the government would class as high skilled.

However, following the outbreak of COVID-19 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 although the gesture exists, it did not alleviate any widespread issues for migrant workers like it first appeared to.

Why is it so important?

The seeming lack of urgency the Government is displaying in providing immigration security has created unprecedented impacts on migrant healthcare workers across the UK. The cancellation of the bill has removed the light at the end of the tunnel for some, who were hoping it would serve as a lifeline for them. Some workers have also reported fears of catching COVID-19 and consequently having to stop working, which would result in serious risk of deportation. This is frankly unacceptable. No person or healthcare worker should have such fears whilst providing such an incomparable service to the country.

The passing of the Immigration (Health and Social Care Staff) Bill would make a change from the hostile environment policies that were first introduced by Theresa May, and which were designed to make the immigration process and living in the UK undesirable for migrants. This seems rather ironic when the government is repeatedly attempting to bring overseas workers to the UK, especially those who can provide a service for them.

It is clear here that the Government is not showing migrant healthcare workers the respect they deserve. The current government treatment is less about humanity and more focused on workers as service workers, creating a disconnect from the feeling of unity that has grown within the public during the pandemic.

The bill must be passed, and migrant healthcare workers need to be shown that they should have the right to indefinite leave to remain, but not just for the service they provide during the pandemic. They have always been an integral part of our health services, and should therefore be granted immigration security.

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