There are currently 170,000 overseas NHS workers from 200 countries residing within the UK. These migrant workers have been essential to the operations of the NHS ever since its inception in 1948. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many have argued that migrant healthcare workers have not been given the respect or recognition they deserve for putting their lives on the line every day. This is exacerbated by the fact that many workers still face immigration security, despite their amazing work. Over the past few months, campaigns have grown that pressure the UK Government to grant migrant NHS workers indefinite leave to remain.
Currently, most migrant NHS workers 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 a Private Members’ Bill which would grant migrant NHS workers indefinite leave to remain has grown.
Recent government action
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.
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 before 31 March 2021 would have it extended for another year with no fee. As this scheme is not expected to continue after this date, many migrant doctors, nurses and paramedics are now left 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 Members’ Bill
In November 2020, 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. She continued to say: “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
The delay of the members’ bill has had a serious impact on morale, as for many it was the light at the end of the tunnel for their anxieties and worries. Some workers have also reported fears that catching COVID may lead to their deportation, as the potential of the inability to work puts their immigration status at serious risk. No worker who is putting their life at risk should be punished in any way for contracting a deadly virus.
Without serious support for the bill being shown, the Government could continue to delay the process of second and third readings. As we are now almost past the 31 March visa extension deadline, it is more important than ever to pressure the Government to move forward with the Bill to ensure migrant workers are given security.
Some argue that an immigration system built on the idea of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrants should not exist. However, sadly, this is how the UK system currently works. With this in mind, how could the UK Government ever argue that the migrant healthcare workers who have saved thousands of lives during a pandemic are not ‘deserving’ in the system they have created?
Under this umbrella, it is clear that migrant healthcare workers are beyond ‘proving themselves’ through putting their life on the line in the way that they have. If this sort of service is not enough for the Government to grant indefinite leave to remain, then what will be? The passing of the Private Member’s Bill is the right thing to do in this situation, and widespread support must be shown.
Aaron Gates-Lincoln is a correspondent for Immigration News, a media platform that helps raise awareness for migrant injustices and news around the world