With Britain in the grip of a second lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic, UK visa rules are forcing migrant NHS workers to leave the country, sparking fears of the UK’s response to COVID-19 being hampered. The British government recently refused to automatically extend UK visas for migrant NHS workers serving on the frontline in the fight against the disease.
Now, trade unions and charities have warned that refusing to extend UK visas for vital NHS staff will add to a growing health worker shortage. The NHS already has an estimated 122,000 vacancies in England alone.
The trade union, Unison, is now urging the Home Office to cease forcing migrant key workers out of the country and preventing new applicants from entering the UK. The government is also being urged to ‘cut the red tape’ for migrant health workers already in the UK who are trying to renew their visas.
According to a report published by The Guardian, many key workers are struggling to renew their existing UK visa because of excessive costs and Home Office backlogs, with many becoming overstayers as a result, a scenario that causes further complications when trying to renew their visa.
Coronavirus second wave
Unison argues that UK visa policy is having a ‘serious impact’ amid a coronavirus second wave in the UK, at a time when the NHS already has more than 120,000 vacancies. Meanwhile, the Doctors Association UK has urged the government to grant indefinite leave to remain to all migrant health care workers.
The association also raised concerns about visa processing delays. In a letter signed by 1,660 doctors and other health professionals, the association complained about the ‘shameful’ treatment of Egyptian consultant cardiologist, Basem Enany, who became seriously ill after contracting COVID-19.
Prior to falling ill, Doctor Enany had treated many patients at York hospital, but he and his family have been left fearing for their future in the UK with the Home Office failing to offer any reassurances once Doctor Enany’s visa expires in December.
Migrant health workers in the NHS
According to recent data published by the Commons Library, over 67,000 NHS staff in England are EU nationals, representing 5.5% of the total workforce. Furthermore, 13.8% of NHS staff say that their nationality is ‘not British.’
Earlier in the year, amid the first wave of coronavirus in the UK, the Home Office agreed to extend UK visas for NHS and care workers for 12 months, free of charge so they could ‘focus on fighting the virus.
However, this extension only applied to around 3,000 workers, excluding thousands of care workers and NHS staff in lower paid roles such as healthcare assistants, hospital cleaners and porters.
Christina McAnea, Unison’s assistant general secretary, said: “Treating overseas health and care workers this way is shameful. These staff are on the frontline, caring for the most vulnerable in society.”
“Shutting them out of the visa extension scheme is a short-sighted and dangerous move. With 122,000 vacancies across the sector, ministers shouldn’t be driving key workers out and barring new ones from coming here,” McAnea added.
Endless hoops and astronomical fees
Meanwhile, the public affairs and campaigns manager at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Minnie Rahman, said: “People who’ve been risking their lives to keep us safe shouldn’t have to jump through endless hoops and pay astronomical fees just to keep living and working here.”
“Limited visa extensions made earlier this year caused devastating confusion and did not protect key workers from the stress of the UK immigration system. The government must now take fair and practical action, and grant free visa extensions and the right to stay to all key workers,” Rahman added.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Overseas health and care workers provide extraordinary contributions right across our NHS caring for those in need and they have saved countless lives throughout the coronavirus pandemic.”
“We want to ensure the best health professionals from around the world continue to come to work in our outstanding NHS and wider health and care sector, which is why they can apply for the health and care visa at a lower cost to other routes,” the spokesperson added.
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