The government’s refusal to extend automatic visa renewals for healthcare workers is hampering the national fight against COVID-19, trade unions and charities have warned.
The move has caused considerable numbers of overseas health and care staff to return to their countries of origin, adding to staffing pressures at a time when the sector is facing vacancies of 122,000.
Unison has highlighted how the government is not only preventing healthcare staff from entering the country, but driving away those that are already present in the UK.
In addition to those that have already left the country, many of those still in the UK are finding it hugely difficult to extend their visas, largely due to delays and prohibitive costs. Migrants who fail to renew their visas on time become classed as illegal overstayers, which in turn hinders their ability to apply for leave to remain in the future.
These issues arrive as the UK enters the second wave of COVID-19, a time when the healthcare sector will be working to its maximum capacity. In order to alleviate the growing pressures, Doctors Association UK- a doctor-led grassroots lobbying and campaigning group- has called for all overseas healthcare workers to be granted Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR), and has raised concerns regarding the ongoing visa processing delays.
These concerns have been raised in a letter signed by 1,660 doctors and other healthcare workers in order to raise awareness of the treatment of doctor Basem Enany, an Egyptian cardiologist at York hospital whose ill health is placing him at risk of overstaying his Skilled Worker Visa.
Enany had treated several patients with COVID-19 prior to falling critically ill with complications of the virus, and now fears for his and his family’s future because the Home Office is yet to confirm what will happen regarding his renewal.
According to a recent House of Commons briefing:
“Over 67,000 NHS staff in England are EU nationals – 5.5% of all staff. Overall, 13.8% of NHS staff say that their nationality is not British.”
In May of this year, the Home Office announced a free year-long visa extension for migrant health and care workers- a move aimed at allowing them to ‘focus on fighting coronavirus’. However, the gesture only affected around 3,000 members of staff, leaving out thousands of indispensable workers such as low paid healthcare assistants and hospital cleaners.
Arun Panabaka, a senior nursing assistant from India with more than a decade of experience in healthcare, arrived in the UK on a Spouse Visa in 2019. His leave to remain expired on 12 October, but he was unable to extend it because his role is not on the Home Office’s Shortage Occupation List (SOL), and has now returned to India with his wife.
Speaking about his experiences, Panabaka had this to say:
“I felt a lot of pride in helping to care for Covid patients at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London earlier this year. It was difficult work both physically and emotionally and I had to live in NHS accommodation away from my wife and nine-year-old daughter for four months to protect them. I believe the NHS needs more nursing staff, not fewer, to look after people with Covid, and that with more of these staff more lives could be saved.”
Unison assistant general secretary Christina McAnea 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 shortsighted 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.”
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.”
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