Thousands of low-paid migrant care and health staff have been shut out of a government scheme that would save them thousands of pounds in visa renewal fees, says UNISON today (Thursday).
The frontline staff are dismayed the government has blocked them from receiving a free one-year visa extension, which has been granted to some key workers because of the pandemic.
The visa extension programme for health workers was introduced at the end of April and is only open to 3,000 NHS professionals, including dentists, physiotherapists, nurses, paramedics and psychologists, says UNISON.
The visa extension fee, which varies based on individual family circumstances, can cost thousands of pounds. It includes a separate charge for migrant workers and their families to use the NHS, despite the fact they already pay national insurance and tax, says UNISON.
This immigration health surcharge of £400 – rising to £624 in October – has been criticised by MPs from all parties as a way of charging workers twice for using the NHS.
The Prime Minister publicly exempted frontline health and care staff from the immigration health surcharge in May. But anxious workers still don’t know when the charge will be waived or if money paid upfront will be returned.
The decision not to make the free visa renewal scheme available to all migrant workers will mean care staff, hospital porters, cleaners and healthcare assistants – many employed on zero-hours contracts and earning the minimum wage – are hit hard, says UNISON.
The confusing and unfair way the visa exemption fees rule is being applied is causing stress and anxiety for cash-strapped workers battling the pandemic in care homes and hospitals, says UNISON.
Even the few workers eligible for the scheme are confused by the way it’s being applied. The Home Office is only waiving the fee for health workers whose visas expire between 31 March and 1 October 2020. Outside these dates staff will get no help, the union says.
UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “It’s perverse that the government’s scheme completely ignores the contribution of care and NHS support staff who have been putting their health on the line to fight Covid-19.
“Low-paid staff are being hit hard by these charges. The free scheme must be extended to cover all care workers and NHS support staff whose visas expire this year.
“The Prime Minister also needs to make good on his promise to scrap the immigration health surcharge and do it now.
“The government’s handling of the scheme has made a bad situation worse. Spin and hollow promises need to be replaced with action. Ministers must scrap the visa extension fee for all care and health staff for good.”
Notes to editors:
– A number of care and health workers have spoken to UNISON about the impact the visa fees are having on their lives:
- A nurse from the Philippines said: “I came to the UK with my care worker husband and young child to help the NHS. I’m shielding because I’m pregnant and my husband gave up his job to protect us from the virus. We’re struggling to save the money to pay for the visa extension and the NHS surcharge. We’ve even moved to a one-bedroom flat to cut costs. As a nurse I should qualify for the extension but can’t believe that because my visa expires at the wrong time of year I don’t qualify. When my baby is born we’ll have to pay the charges for them too. As foreign workers, we’re not entitled to any state support, which means we don’t get free school meals or child benefit, even though we’re really struggling. We celebrated when Boris Johnson scrapped the immigration health surcharge, but nothing has happened. I’m determined to do all I can to help the NHS, that’s why I came to the UK.”
- A healthcare assistant originally from Nigeria said: “I’m not eligible for the scheme because I have the wrong type of visa. My husband – who’s a care worker – and I paid more than £1,000 each for temporary visa extensions until December. But we don’t qualify for a free renewal because our visas expire outside the dates the Home Office set. We’ll have to go through the whole process again in December, it’s draining and will cost thousands of pounds. I have three children, the youngest is a British citizen but because of our immigration status, we get no state support, even though we pay tax and national insurance.”
- A hospital health care assistant, and student nurse, originally from Kenya said: “Just before the pandemic struck my husband became unwell so I gave up my healthcare job to care for him and our two-year old. I’m still studying to be a nurse though and am coming to the end of the first year of a three-year course. We’ve been hit hard by the virus – my finances have fallen at a time when we need them the most. Like other foreign health workers, I’m struggling to find the money to pay for the visa extension.”
– UNISON is the UK’s largest union, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services – in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, private and voluntary sectors.
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