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New Covid Test and Trace Guidance Leaves Migrant Key Workers In A "Difficult Position", Labour Say

An NHS Test and Trace logo on a member of staff's jacket at a Covid-19 testing centre in Southwark, south London | PA Images

4 min read

A gap in government guidance means that thousands of legal migrant key workers could be forced to choose between following new public health laws and destitution, according to Labour MPs and charities.

They are warning that no recourse to public funds (NRPF) conditions, which apply to roughly 1.4 million legal non-EEA migrants in the UK, could exclude thousands from the government’s new Test and Trace support programme, including many key workers. 

They say the rules call into question the Boris Johnson's commitment to “put arms around every worker”, and prioritise public health in the pandemic.

The new support programme, beginning on Monday but backdated to 28 September, will give a £500 lump sum to those on low incomes who are asked to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace and therefore unable to work. However, the eligibility conditions are reliant on the beneficiary already receiving state benefits – which the majority of migrants in the UK are ineligible to claim due to their visa conditions. 

It means that hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in low-paid or insecure jobs could face a choice between losing their income by self-isolating if they test positive for Covid-19 or are contacted by test and trace, or continue going into work and risking spreading Covid-19. Those who do not follow official orders to self isolate can also now be fined, starting at £1,000 and rising to £10,000 for repeat offenders. 

Data from the Home Office shows that the number of migrants subject to NRPF applying for destitution support also increased six-fold in the first three months of lockdown.

Home Office rules currently mean that most non-EEA migrants, living and residing legally in the UK on Limited Leave to Remain visas, cannot access public funds such as Universal Credit, Job Seekers Allowance, Housing or Child Benefit. However, people with NRPF conditions who have fallen into destitution or where the welfare of a child is at risk can apply to have the conditions lifted.

The number of people applying to have their NRPF conditions lifted increased by 567% in between April and June 2020 to 5,665, compared to 843 between January and March. Home Office data shows that applications took an average 30 days to process, and 89% of the applications were successful – although some families report taking four months for their application to be processed. 

Public health concerns have been exacerbated by the prevalence of those subject to NRPF in low-paid key worker roles like carers. Nearly a third of all those helped during the pandemic by The Unity Project, a charity which helps destitute families apply to have NRPF conditions lifted, during the pandemic were key-workers. 

Additionally, 22% of families that The Unity Project assisted during lockdown had underlying health conditions that put them ‘at risk’ from Covid-19. Of these, 54% were forced to continue working throughout lockdown.

Speaking to PoliticsHome, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee and Labour MP Stephen Timms says that is it in “everybody’s interest” for people working legally but with no recourse to public funds to be able to access the support payment. He said: “If somebody has symptoms or been in contact with somebody who has coronavirus, they should be able to self isolate. If they've got zero income, it is impossible for them to do it. 

“There are some very troubling stories of people, for example, with leave to remain but no recourse to public funds, who are cab drivers who become ill but what can they do? They can't simply stay at home and starve. The only way they have to secure an income to carry on driving their cab. And that's clearly contrary to the interests of public health, let alone their own interests.” 

Timms, who will lead a Westminster Hall debate on the subject of NRPF in Parliament later today, has repeatedly called for NRPF conditions to be lifted throughout the pandemic. Certain government schemes, like the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme have been accessible for those with NRPF. 

Holly Lynch, shadow immigration minister added: "Labour has been clear that NRPF should be suspended during the pandemic, to not do so puts people in a very difficult position. We must ensure people are financially able to do the right thing and self-isolate when necessary."

A government spokesperson said: “This government is committed to supporting people affected by Covid-19 and has implemented an enormous package of measures to do so such as income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional security for renters - which are all open to those with no recourse to public funds - as well as injecting over £9.3 billion into the welfare system.

“EU citizens who are exercising a qualifying right to reside and are habitually resident in the UK will pass the Habitual Residence Test (HRT) and can access income-related benefits. EU nationals can also apply to the Home Office EU Settlement Scheme to prove their right to reside.”

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