After COVID-19, the NHS needs more than an NHS Visa

Olivia Bridge, political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service explains why the UK needs to take a long hard look at immigration for healthcare professionals

It goes without saying that the Coronavirus crisis has been catapulted to the forefront of our collective concerns – and with it, concern for the NHS and its indispensable staff who run into the arms of danger, often bereft of personal protective equipment. 

Never before has the work of healthcare staff been so deeply valued. As the public come out in their droves to ‘clap for carers’ every Thursday, the Home Office has promoted those who it has long depicted as ‘low skilled’ to ‘essential key workers’. 

However, a decade of underfunding, stagnant wages, spiralling debt and extortionate staff shortages have left the NHS and care sector to combat COVID-19 in danger. The promises and pledges spouted during the 2019 General Election must be reconciled with reality. The Government’s mission to build forty new hospitals has materialised into a disappointing 6 receiving expansions while recruiting some 50,000 NHS staff members has translated into 31,500 newbies. A lethal concoction of a ‘Brexodus’ of migrant staff coupled with a dwindled interest from British youth has seen a 11,500 doctor, a 44,000 nursing and 122,000 care worker shortage overall. Clearly, the woes of the workforce cannot be patched up with the Government’s cash injection of £34m. 

Yet here to exacerbate the crisis is the post-Brexit immigration rules. Although Brexit appears like a distant memory of a bygone era when in the throes of a global pandemic, the UK is firmly stood in the middle of its transitional period. The formal exit from the European Union coincides with a new set of immigration rules to replace Free Movement, inferring new costs and visa eligibility criteria only all Europeans seeking entry into the country as of 2021.

Although the launch of a new NHS Visa might sound revolutionary, the design is significantly flawed. Already, non-EU migrant doctors and nurses receive a visa discount and pay £464 for a Work Visa – the same fee proposed for the NHS Visa. However, scandalously, the NHS Visa comes with far more hidden costs.

While all current migrants, including healthcare staff, need to pay £2,000 upfront to satisfy the Immigration Health Surcharge, as of next year EU and overseas doctors and nurses will need to pay £3,125. The only marginal relief the NHS Visa offers is that staff will be able to opt to have the fee deducted through regular instalments in their salary rather than coughed up in one lump sum.

The Health Surcharge has been a point of controversy since its inception in 2015. The fee has risen almost yearly, from £200, £400 to now £625 starting in October. The Royal College of Nursing has argued that migrant healthcare workers should be exempt from the fee in the first place since not only does it deter staff from working in the UK but these are the very people who are keeping the sector from collapse. Besides, migrants already contribute significantly into the NHS in their taxes. 

It is also important to note that there are no fee waivers or discounts when bringing children or spouses into the UK. A family of four could easily be coughing up £10,000 just to satisfy the health fee alone. And visa fees must be renewed every so often until the foreign national becomes eligible for British Citizenship which can take anywhere between five to ten years. 

But at least there is a route for NHS staff. By contrast, there is no route on offer for care workers in the new rules. And since they simply don’t meet the 70-points necessary for a Work Visa (on the grounds that they earn below the £25,600 salary threshold), care homes will have to turn to local talent to ameliorate its workforce losses.

When the NHS and care sector needs all the qualified and trained hands it can get, and as many risk their lives to protect people amid COVID-19, the Government plans on pulling up the ladder to overseas talent. If the Government were serious about protecting the UK health sector, it would exempt NHS staff from the Health Surcharge and design a similar Care Worker Visa to pull the sector out of its critical crisis. 

After years of skirting on the edges of collapse, the Government’s solution is based in the same-old strategy: indifference to the plight of those in the country, exile for those wishing to come and help and a relentless and futile pursuit to bring migrant numbers down. If the past and present seem bleak for the NHS, then little consolation lies in the future of Boris’ Brexit Britain.