Coronavirus: The people left with nothing because of the lockdown

‘I can’t afford to stay off work for 12 weeks. I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ says pregnant care worker

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 12 May 2020 11:08 BST
Sara and her young son have no recourse to public funds, a rule that affects thousands of people
Sara and her young son have no recourse to public funds, a rule that affects thousands of people ('Sarah')

Care worker Sara* doesn’t know how she’s going to support herself and her young son over the next 10 weeks. The Ghanaian national, who is in her late twenties, is 27 weeks pregnant so is having to self-isolate – but is receiving no pay at all and cannot access state benefits.

“I don’t have enough money to even buy food. I’m relying on a charity for food each week,” she tells The Independent. “Boris Johnson said pregnant women shouldn’t work for 12 weeks, but how am I supposed to support myself? There’s no support for me.”

Sara, who also needs to stay at home to care for her British son because his nursery has closed and she is a single mother, has “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) – a rule, attached to the immigration status of thousands of people across the UK, that stipulates they can live and work in the UK but are not entitled to state support.

The care worker, who has lived in the UK for seven years, is on a 16-hour contract, which means even though she usually works considerably more than that – between 25 and 35 hours a week – she is not eligible for statutory sick pay, which is worth £94.25 a week.

The Department for Work and Pensions has informed people who are ineligible for statutory sick pay during the coronavirus pandemic that they can apply for universal credit or other state benefits.

However, those with no recourse to public funds, like Sara, are not eligible for this state support unless they successfully apply to remove the NRPF restriction – but this is a complex process and can take months.

The Home Office was forced to admit during a High Court hearing earlier this month that there were “serious issues” with the NRPF policy and that these should be looked at by the court urgently, after a legal challenge sought an urgent suspension of it to allow those unable to work because of Covid-19 to have immediate access to welfare support.

The judges left the policy in place but ordered that a full hearing on its legality should be heard urgently – setting a court date for the beginning of May.

Another UK worker with NRPF, who asked only to be named Yashra, lost her restaurant job last month when the venue was forced to close due to the pandemic.

The Mauritian woman, who is in her late twenties, managed to find a job she could do from home but is only 21 hours a week, which has left her fearful she won’t be able to afford basic necessities.

“I thought I’d be homeless. That was the first thing that came to my head – how was I going to pay my rent? Knowing that I couldn’t pay my rent and pay for food and all these things was very, very stressful,” she tells The Independent.

“Now I’ve found some work but it’s literally only going to cover my rent. And I can’t get another job. I sometimes think there’s a high chance I can’t pay my rent. It’s a very difficult situation. It’s a constant fear. I’m always thinking about being homeless.

“Right now I think everyone is going through a difficult moment, so I wouldn’t want to ask anyone. I can see myself having to go to food banks if it comes down to it. I have to survive somehow.”

Yashra, who has lived in the UK since 2006, says: “I like working, I like being independent, but at the moment there’s no way I can survive without a little bit of help from the government. It’s very stressful. Mentally it is really impacting on me.

“Now is the time the government needs to be helping us, we already lost our jobs, we don’t get any help. So many people will go through mental trauma because of this.”

The Unity Project, which supported the court challenge, is currently awaiting outcomes of 20 applications to the Home Office on behalf of people to lift the NRPF condition, all of which the charity says they have chased the department on, to no avail.

During the court hearing, the Home Office issued revised guidance to staff instructing them to “provide sympathetic and expeditious decision-making” during the pandemic when dealing with applicants seeking to have their NRPF condition lifted.

Caz Hattam, coordinator at the Unity Project, says the NRPF policy has caused “abject poverty” which has been highlighted and exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, as many have been forced to choose between going to work against government guidelines or staying at home but without any income.

In light of the court ruling, she says: “We have had assurances from the Home Office before that they will deal with applications to lift the NRPF condition quickly and compassionately, but that has never been our experience.

“Quite the opposite. We have no reason to expect this time will be different. However, we urge anyone in this situation to apply for a change of conditions as soon as possible, and let us know how they get on. We will be amassing evidence to show the court that the whole scheme is inhumane and needs to be dismantled.”

Adam Hundt, partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn, the law firm acting in the case, says: “It’s disappointing that the judges did not agree to immediately suspend the NRPF policy.

“We know April will be a long and bleak month for families who have lost some or all of their income because of the outbreak, and who were already in desperate straits. However, we welcome the expedited hearing, which puts us in a strong position to challenge the policy as a whole, and end the discrimination and damage it causes.”

Sara says she has so far had to rely on charity donations and the kindness of friends to obtain basic essentials for her and her son, but she doesn’t know how she will make it through the coming weeks.

“I can’t afford to stay off for 12 weeks. I genuinely don’t know how I can do that,” she says, adding: “I feel undervalued. I’m getting depressed about it. It makes me cry a lot. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

A Home Office spokesperson told The Independent: “It is disingenuous to suggest that Deighton Pierce Glynn pressed to immediately suspend the no recourse to public funds, as at no point did their counsel ask the judges to consider interim relief. However, we are pleased that both sides agreed the next steps in the proceedings.

“We are committed to doing whatever it takes to support people through this crisis, and nobody should find themselves starving or destitute. We have brought forward many measures which can be accessed by migrants with leave to remain.”

* Name has been changed

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