Cross-party MPs and medical bodies including the British Medical Association (BMA) have backed calls to change the law so that foreign health and social care staff are given the right to stay in the UK in honour of their commitment during the pandemic.
Liberal Democrat Christine Jardine, who is pushing the second reading of a Private Members’ Bill which would make this happen, warned that failing to provide “certainty” to these healthcare workers would risk “fueling the winter crisis with an exodus of staff”.
In England, there are 39,000 vacancies for registered nurses, while across Scotland over 4,800 nursing and midwifery vacancies are empty, according to the latest NHS statistics.
Around 170,000 NHS staff are of non-British nationality. The extent to which the NHS relies on migrants was first underlined by the fact that the first four doctors who died from coronavirus were all born overseas.
Many of these migrants are required to pay thousands of pounds in immigration fees in order to remain indefinitely in the UK.
“It is unimaginable that people fighting for us are being left with the stress and anxiety about whether or not their visa will be extended. If someone is prepared to risk their life for this country, they must be allowed to live in it,” Ms Jardine, MP for Edinburgh West, told The Independent.
“The NHS is now facing a looming winter crisis with a black hole of vacancies to fill and record waiting times. Once again we will turn to stretched health and care staff to take care of our loved ones.”
Dr Krizun Loganathan, a doctor from Malaysia, who has worked in South Wales and Merseyside and worked in an intensive care unit during the pandemic, faces the prospect of a bill of more than £3,000, on top of lawyer fees, to apply for indefinite leave to remain.
He said he felt “tired and isolated”, adding: “Still facing visa related expenses is leaving many immigrant health care workers utterly demoralised or worse still, with no choice but to leave the NHS altogether”.
The intervention comes amid increasing concerns the NHS is facing a winter crisis. Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, said staff feared it could be “one of the most difficult winters the NHS has ever faced.”
MPs from Labour, Conservative, SNP, Green, Alliance and the Liberal Democrats, as well as the BMA and the Doctors’ Association UK, have backed plans to extend indefinite leave to remain.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the council of the BMA, said: “After the past 20 months, when skilled international healthcare workers have put themselves in harm’s way in the fight against Covid-19 on the frontline, it is only right that the government takes tangible action to support this significant and vital segment of the NHS workforce.”
Dolin Bhagawati, the interim co-chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, said it was “time the government assures [migrant NHS workers] that they will not be callously cast aside as a political inconvenience”.
“These are dedicated professionals who have performed heroic service over the last 18 months. Yet they live with the potential for deportation over their heads at any instant. The country they have sacrificed so much for should be welcoming them home,” he added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We recognise the huge contribution healthcare professionals from overseas are making across the country in fighting the coronavirus.
“The automatic visa extension – which ran between April 2020 and September 2021 and benefitted key workers in the health and social care sector, such as nurses, occupational therapists and social workers – is just one of the ways the government is showing its support and gratitude.
“More widely, eligible health professionals and their dependants can apply for the fast-track Health and Care visa we launched in August, which makes it easier and quicker for the best global health professionals to work in the NHS, the social care sector and for those organisations which provide commissioned services to the NHS.”