Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of migrant key workers, who make up 20% of the NHS workforce. The NHS surcharge is paid by migrants from outside the EEA, or anyone applying for a visa lasting for more than 6 months, which demands a yearly sum of £400 per person to use the health service. Boris Johnson initially rejected appeals to exclude migrant Covid-19 NHS workers from paying. However, on the 26th April, it was announced the surcharge was ‘under review’ and since, it has been agreed that those covered by the one-year free visa extension will be exempt from the charge. Furthermore, Health Secretary Priti Patel announced a Coronavirus (COVID-19) bereavement scheme to support the dependants of workers who have lost their lives due to the virus- controversially excluding many lower-paid NHS roles. Following backlash, the UK government has since made a U-turn by extending the provision of the scheme to cover all families of migrant social care workers, including hospital cleaners and porters. For some, the extension comes too late, with NHS staff fearful of losing their jobs as a result of visa complications.
Summary of U-Turns:
March 2020: Home Office announces an automatic renewal of visas for NHS overseas workers (limited to doctors, paramedics and nurses).
April 2020: Home Secretary Priti Patel confirms families and dependants of all NHS workers who have tragically lost their lives to the virus will be granted indefinite leave to remain.
- Extends scheme to midwives, radiographers, and some social care workers
- Those covered by the visa extension will now be exempt from the NHS surcharge
- Applies to all visas expiring between 31 March – October 2020
The broader significance of this:
Despite these changes being a positive step by the government, they have highlighted the hostility inherent within the government’s immigration policies on the one hand and the importance of public scrutiny of these policies on the other. It also exposes the political economy of the government’s charging regimes whereby revenue extraction override compassion and humanity. It took immense pressure from the public, the Labour party and even Conservative MP’s for the government to lift the immigration health surcharge.
The fact it has taken a global pandemic and public outrage to shift government policy is indicative of the potency of public advocacy, however it is important that these are not reactive measures and short term gains but should translate into lasting policy changes. This also highlights the hypocrisy of the new skills-based migration system, which will further reduce low-wage and low-skilled EU migrants access to the UK. However, recognising the human value of migrants should not be dependent on their utility in a time of crisis.