The COVID-19 pandemic has been catapulted to the forefront of our collective concerns around the world, dominating the press and restricting our civil liberties on an unprecedented scale. With social distancing and stringent self-isolation measures now passing into its eighth week for the UK, Britons can only watch on from the confinements of their own homes as NHS staff have little choice but to walk headfirst into danger day after day.
Never before has the valour and honourable work of healthcare staff in the UK been so pertinent and widely praised. Not only has the general public clapped from their windows and front doors every Thursday to show their appreciation, but many have come up with innovative fundraisers – in part to make up for the rife underfunding the sector has suffered from in the past decade that has since materialized into a lack of staff and Personal Protective Equipment.
Even the Government appears to have made a dramatic U-turn. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, with one swipe of his pen, managed to write off all of the NHS’ debt. The 2020 Budget Plan rolled out the red carpet for additional NHS funding.
And although Hancock’s ‘care badge’ appeared little more than a slap in the face to the sector, the Home Office now considers those who have long been demonised as ‘low skilled’ as ‘essential key workers’.
One prominent Brexiteer MP, Steve Double, even addressed Parliament to lobby for reform in the immigration rules, claiming COVID-19 “is teaching us that many people that we consider to be low skilled, are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country and are in fact recognized as key workers.” Later, Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself paid homage to the migrant doctors who saved his life when he himself wrestled with the virus.
Yet the wheels of the ‘hostile environment’ continue to churn without caution. Although Brexit seems but a faraway pipedream, the post-Brexit immigration plan still has the green light with the Home Secretary solidifying the plan to end Free Movement earlier this week.
What this means is that although coronavirus is predicted to linger with us for the next year or so, the Government will be pulling up the ladder to migrant talent as soon as January 2021.
The proposal was problematic even before COVID-19, particularly in healthcare where there is a national 44,000 nursing, 11,500 doctor and 122,000 care worker shortage. Yet how will the NHS and social care workforce fare when red tape drapes across talent pools?
One attempt to mitigate the inevitable shortfall is found in the newly unveiled NHS Visa, marketed at a visa discount and with a fast-track service. However, it is not so shiny and new: doctors and nurses, by virtue of being on the UK Shortage Occupation List, already benefit from a Skilled Worker Visa discount. In fact, the fee (£464) remains the same.
The only marginal difference to be found between the current rules and the future ones is that prospective migrant healthcare staff will actually need to pay more in order to come and work in the UK. This is because the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) is due to rise in October.
The IHS applies to all immigrants, not just healthcare staff. There are no discounts or fee waivers for large families or even children. As a result, since its inception in 2015, the Surcharge has been met with a barrage of criticism – not least of all because migrants already pay extortionate visa fees and contribute into the public purse through their taxes, but why should a doctor and nurse pay a levy to use the service that they uphold and work in?
Campaign groups in the health sector have long argued that NHS staff should at least be exempt from the charge, and that was when the fee was at a modest £200 per year. The fee has since doubled to £400, inflicting an average up-front cost of £2,000 to accompany a five-year visa.
However, by the time EU nationals will also be met with immigration fees, they will need to cough up £3,125 to satisfy the IHS – and this fee will need to be renewed if they consider remaining in the country once their visa meets its expiry date.
It is no exaggeration that a family of four could easily expect to pay £10,000 to satisfy the Health Surcharge alone, no matter if they work in the NHS or elsewhere. And rather than axe the fee for NHS workers altogether, the UK Government will allow NHS staff to pay off the debt through regular deductions from their salary instead.
In other words, in a few months’ time, European healthcare professionals will no longer be able to breeze through border control free of charge in order to provide a helping hand to a sector that is already on its knees. Every single member of staff who originates from overseas will be financially indebted to the UK and burdened by exorbitant costs throughout their entire time in the country.
The question is, who would choose to work in the NHS, where low pay and little reward go hand in hand and where it costs a small fortune just to gain entry clearance?
Yet migrant carers aren’t even afforded the luxury of a dedicated visa route. In actuality, carers are kept clean out of the immigration rules and will be unable to score the 70 points needed for a Work Visa. Astoundingly, the Home Office envisions ‘care robots’ and automation stepping into the unfilled shoes of migrant staff next year, pledging £34m to the replacement model.
Even in the middle of a pandemic, it is clear that the UK Government refuses to budge and throw the NHS a real lifeline. At a time when the NHS and care workforce needs all the support and manpower it can get, the post-Brexit immigration plan creeps in to hit the final nail in the coffin.
Reform is desperately needed if the UK is to seriously consider the needs and demands of the country before a post-COVID-19 economic crisis sets in stone.