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Credit, Sasin Tipchai

NHS in Turmoil: Relax Immigration Rules for Healthcare Staff

The Brexit soundbite coupled with promises to patch up the NHS with cash and fresh new staff arguably was the golden ticket that won the Conservative Party a majority in the 2019 General Election.

However, the pledge to build 40 new hospitals and create 50 million more GP appointments with the aid of 6,000 new GPs and 50,000 nurses is already materialising into a red bus-style fib. The figures have since been translated and whittled down: six hospitals are set to be upgraded and the remaining will receive a bit more funding. Meanwhile, only 14,000 new nurses will be recruited and 18,500 ex-nurses are supposed to be ‘persuaded’ to return. 

The repercussions of overpromising have never been so prominent now that the COVID-19 pandemic presents the biggest threat to public health in a generation. The Chancellor’s recent Budget 2020 announcement to swoop in with fast-fixes and billions of pounds of cash injections for the NHS appears a little too late: the NHS had already pulled the short straw in the Tories’ budget for decades, way before the coronavirus had rippled across the continent. 

The Government already owes a minimum of 5,000 GPs to the sector dating back to 2015. And so, the promise to recruit 6,000 by 2024 not only falls short of patching up the gaps but is a mere pipedream. The only lifeline thrown to GPs in the new Budget lies in the promise to revaluate taxes for NHS consultants and higher-paid NHS staff as it emerged doctors were forced to slash their hours to spare their pension pot. 

Yet the fact remains that the NHS is on its knees from staff shortages – and is crying out for help in the worst health pandemic the UK has endured in peacetime. The need for more doctors, nurses and better funding and resources has never been so pressing as Britons start to fear for their vulnerable loved ones and elderly neighbours. 

However, the Home Office remains stubborn from introducing the real, ground-breaking change the sector desperately needs to tackle the virus and to combat the outbreak of any future diseases. As the NHS quite literally prepares to batten down its hatches – which may include delaying ‘non-essential’ surgeries to make way for COVID-19 patients – the immigration rules are wheeled in at a wholly inappropriate time. Fears are mounting that, once the immigration restrictions are in place, the NHS may struggle even more so to survive, especially if this situation continues in the UK for as long as a year.

The rumoured ‘NHS Visa’ received no mention in the rules that were unleashed in late February, leading many working in the immigration sector to conclude what they have long believed: that the ‘Australian’ points-based-system and NHS Visa promise was a mere tactic to get the electorate on their side. After all, the UK already has a points-based-system in which doctors and nurses are exempt from the main choking points of the Tier 2 Work Visa rules.

The only difference Boris Johnson proposed to the rules would ironically and quite scandalously leave migrant healthcare workers financially worse off. At a time when NHS workers are needed more than ever, this move seems to be the very definition of ‘cutting your nose off to spite your face’. 

While migrant NHS workers currently pay up to £2,000 alongside their visa application for a five-year stay, incoming staff as soon as 2021 will be paying £3,125. This is because Johnson has promised to increase the compulsory and controversial Immigration Health Surcharge to £625 per person per year. The only ‘benefit’ on offer for future NHS workers is that they can opt to pay this fee back through regular deductions in their salary. 

Leading industry voices have long campaigned to have the fee removed entirely for migrant NHS staff; the very same staff who are currently toiling away in our hospitals and GP surgeries to cater to the crisis and who already contribute into the pot through taxes. There have even been cases of migrant NHS workers receiving xenophobic and racist abuse as the coronavirus epidemic took hold. Is this how the UK wants to treat those who come from overseas and throw themselves into danger every day to keep us safe? 

No matter which way the Home Office attempts to dress its new NHS aid up, few workers – if any – are going to enthusiastically take the plunge to work in not only an unappealing atmosphere of stress and exhaustion for below-average rates of pay but in a hostile country where its government and people are more interested in their life savings and nationality than their ability and persistence to save lives.

In these gravest of times, we should be applauding our migrant and British NHS staff. Instead, the UK Government continues to see migrant hands rushing to the aid of our vulnerable loved ones in this unprecedented time of crisis as vessels for profit.

​This article has been written by Olivia Bridge who is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service.