by Aaron Gates-Lincoln, Political Advisor at ImmiNews
Throughout the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have argued that migrant healthcare workers have not been given the rightful respect or recognition which they truly deserve. Ever since the inception of the NHS in 1948, migrant workers have been essential to the operations of our healthcare system.
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. 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.
The Story So Far
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, showcasing how important migrant workers are to our health service. In April 2020, Priti Patel announced an Immigration Health Surcharge was under review, which would essentially mean migrant NHS workers are taxed twice to use the health service themselves.
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.
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.
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. 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 7400 letters of advocacy for the bill.
Unfortunately, the second reading of the bill was delayed in January 2021 due to the Common’s 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.
What Must Be Done
The impact that migrant NHS workers have experienced during this critical time due to immigration insecurity is unprecedented. The cancellation of the private member’s bill has had a serious impact on morale, with many hoping it would be a vital lifeline for them and their families. Some workers have reported fears of catching COVID, as if they and their families have to stop working, they could face serious risk of being deported. For frontline workers, this fear is inhumane. No worker who is risking their lives to save the lives of others should be punished for contracting a deadly virus.
The UK government has designed a hostile immigration system, which is incredibly difficult to manoeuvre through. It is built on the idea that migrants must prove their value and their ability to assimilate into UK society in order to be granted indefinite leave to remain and eventually citizenship. With this in mind, how can the government not acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice that migrant healthcare workers have provided during this time, through putting their lives at risk every day for a year?
However, the debate of migrant worth is dehumanising, unnecessary and from a moral perspective, unjustifiable. Despite this, it is how the current system works and the government is not showing any signs of changing that. If they were to not grant migrant NHS workers indefinite leave to remain status, they would be undermining the principles they have built their immigration system upon.
This current immigration system is flawed, and is littered with ethical and moral issues. Hence, it is absolutely necessary that the public push for migrant NHS workers to be granted security in this country. The bill must be debated and passed to ensure that migrant healthcare workers are given what they have always deserved; security and appreciation.