22 March 2021

Overseas NHS workers are risking their lives – here’s how to thank them

By Aaron Gates-Lincoln

Charles Oti is an infection control scientist who specialises in preventing contamination in hospitals – skills that are vital for the fight against coronavirus. But he was forced to give up his job in the NHS because the Home Office said he did not have the right documentation and was at risk of being deported to Nigeria.

His case has drawn attention to the uncertainties overseas NHS workers are facing over their immigration status, even as they are saving lives in the pandemic.

Ever since its inception in 1948, the NHS has relied on migrant workers. There are currently 170,000 overseas NHS workers from 200 countries, many of whom 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 providing a critical service to the country.

Now MPs and campaigners are calling for migrant NHS workers to be granted indefinite leave to remain.

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, amid fears that the NHS would not be able to attract staff after Brexit. In April 2020, Priti Patel announced the immigration health surcharge fees paid by migrant NHS workers to use the health service themselves were under review. Then, last May, the Government announced they would be abolished altogether.

Although this initially seems positive, studies have found that due to differing immigration statuses, only 12% of migrant workers actually pay the surcharge. So while this is a welcome gesture of appreciation, it does not alleviate any of the more widespread issues migrant workers face.

The Government also 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. However the scheme is expected to end in March 2021, leaving many migrant doctors, nurses and paramedics facing the imminent prospect of having to spend hundreds of pounds and weeks applying for new visas while still in the midst of the crisis. It seems particularly unjust that the workers who have carried the country through the pandemic, are having to spend their own hard-earned money just to continue with their service.

The campaign

In November 2019 a Private Member’s Bill was put forward, which would offer migrant healthcare workers indefinite leave to remain. This is similar to actions taken in countries like France, which is granting full citizenship to frontline migrant workers. The campaign 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 it.

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 has since called on the Government to consider debating the bill remotely, due to the urgency of its nature. But backbench bills are not the way to resolve this problem – it’s time for the Government to step forward and give NHS workers firm reassurances that they are welcome in this country and that their service in the pandemic is valued.

What needs to be done?

Some workers have reported fears that they will be deported if they catch Covid and have to stop working. This uncertainty around immigration status is dehumanising, unnecessary and morally unjustifiable. Migrant workers in the NHS are putting their lives at risk for others – they shouldn’t have to live in fear of being punished for catching a deadly virus.

Instead of just clapping for carers, let’s show our appreciation by giving them the security they deserve.

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Aaron Gates-Lincoln writes for immigrationnews.co.uk, a media platform that helps to raise awareness about migrant injustices and news around the world.