NHS workers are the heroes of this country – yet thousands are being financially crippled by this government
NHS workers who come to this country from overseas to care for our loved ones and save lives are being hit with a pile of unfair charges. It’s time we treated them like the heroes they are
The claps from Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock are ringing hollow for our NHS and social care workers.
Instead of a promise of a pay rise, job security and the proper PPE they need, NHS workers are already being threatened with yet another pay freeze, Ministers still aren’t preparing the equipment we need in case of a second peak, and the cohort of student nurses, midwives and paramedics who stopped their university studies early to join the fight against covid-19 are now even facing the sack.
Worse still is the treatment of the over 170,000 NHS staff who come from overseas. Lumbered with extortionate visa fees, an annual Immigration Health Surcharge of £400 which will rise to over £600 in October, and often with No Recourse to Public Funds, which means they’re blocked them from the even the most basic public services.
Last week, I heard from a group of Royal College of Nurses (RCN) members working at the local hospital in Luton who have come from abroad. What they told me would make people wonder why anyone would choose to care in a country run by a government that cares so little for them in return.
After the last ten years, we have a situation where they’re cut off from the public services they need to help them get to work.
When so-called No Recourse to Public Funds means nurses can’t access childcare, they have to make the heart-breaking choice between working and living apart from their children. These RCN workers went on to explain that without access to government support for childcare, their earnings of £11 per hour would not meet the childcare costs of £16 per hour. The cost of childcare is not an issue for a minority of NHS workers and carers, with an overwhelmingly female workforce, it is increasingly a problem for all workers but even more so for those without family nearby to help.
One nurse told me that she had to borrow £1000 from a colleague so that she could afford to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge for her and her son. After immense pressure from Keir Starmer and Labour MPs, last month Boris Johnson was forced to announce that he would end the charge. Weeks on, we’re still waiting on a plan and a timetable from government.
The final insult for overseas NHS staff was the extortionate visa costs. Some were being charged nearly a thousand pounds each time in visa costs, while needing to prove that they have enough money in their personal bank account. This is on top of soaring housing costs. The financial pressures on these individual NHS staff is crippling.
But it isn’t just about money. One man explained that having to take every shift going at the hospital meant that he had little time to spend with his family and nurture his children the way he would want to. There is a social cost to financially punishing overseas NHS workers.
We know that the arguments from the current occupants of Downing Street are now well rehearsed. ‘Well, they come to this country, they should have to pay for it’. But NHS workers already do pay. Each and every single one of them pays their taxes and national insurance, while working all hours to care on wards and in care homes. Committed professionals come to this country to work in the NHS and care for our community. This is not the way they should be repaid.
At the Luton and Dunstable, a large proportion of the workforce is made up of BAME workers and many of them come from overseas. As the figures show, they are the most likely to be adversely affected and die from covid-19, yet they are the least valued by a government that sees them as “low-skilled”.
Right now, the public knows that NHS workers are the heroes of this country. As MPs, we have a once in a generation opportunity to change the narrative on how we treat migrant workers in our country.
If the Prime Minister is grateful enough to applaud on the steps on Number 10, he should be grateful enough to immediately stop this pile of unfair charges for NHS workers who come to this country to work, care for our loved ones and save lives.
What we need to see now, is NHS workers and carers treated like the heroes they are and to have a protective ring round them, as well as their patients. If NHS workers’ families are entitled to Indefinite Leave to Remain when they die in service, surely, they are worthy of it when they are alive?
Sarah Owen is Labour MP for Luton North and a member of the Health and Social Care Select Committee