Migrant NHS workers face uncertainty after right to remain bill is delayed

, by Aaron Gates-Lincoln

Migrant NHS workers face uncertainty after right to remain bill is delayed
Credit: Simon David, Flickr

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 how important they are.

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 how important they are.

However, throughout the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have argued that migrant workers have not been given the rightful respect or recognition 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. 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 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. 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 then 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.

How Will This Impact EU Nationals?

As of June 2020, 67,000 of the UK healthcare workforce are nationals of EU countries - 5.5% of NHS staff in England. It is estimated that 9.1% of doctors and 6.0% of nurses in the UK are from the EU, but since 2016 this has actually fallen.

Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and the UK, EU nationals now have until the 30th June 2021 to apply for settled status via the EU Settlement scheme. Those healthcare workers who are successful in their application will be able to remain in the UK and will have access to public services and healthcare. EU nationals who have the status of indefinite leave to remain do not have to apply for this. However, if they choose to do so and are successful they will gain the right to leave the UK for up to 5 years and not lose settled status rather than two years under indefinite leave to remain.

EU nationals are largely not going to be impacted by this bill. This is because they have the EU Settlement scheme in which to apply to, which non-EEC migrant healthcare workers do not have as an option. The issue is that for those healthcare workers that do apply to the scheme and are rejected, they will be facing immigration insecurity once again.

In the long run, the proposed bill that would grant non-EEC healthcare workers the indefinite leave to remain could create some changes in employment opportunities for EU nationals. This will be because there will be a much smaller turnover in non-EEC staff who are losing immigration status and leaving the UK, therefore leaving fewer job openings for EU nationals who are wishing to settle in the UK and work in healthcare. However, this is an ongoing issue so such impacts cannot yet be determined. It is certainly a topic area that EU nationals may want to watch closely.

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