Priti Patel has buckled to pressure for more support for families of migrant NHS cleaners, porters and social care workers who die in the coronavirus pandemic, after a senior medical adviser hailed their contribution, saying: “There are many, many heroes within the NHS, not just doctors and nurses.”
Within minutes of NHS England medical director Stephen Powis’ impassioned tribute at the daily Downing Street press conference, the Home Office announced a U-turn on its policy excluding support staff and care workers from the offer extended to foreign-national doctors and nurses of indefinite leave to remain in the UK for their families if they die.
And when Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, was challenged on it at the No 10 briefing, he promised that ministers would look at the policy, which he said was was being “kept under review”.
Prof Powis said that decisions on immigration status were a matter for ministers, but added: “As a doctor who has worked on the frontline for many years, I value the entire multidisciplinary team – everybody from porter to manager to administrator to nurse who absolutely work together as a team in managing this sort of crisis, but also the day-to-day care that the NHS provides.
“It’s often the doctors and nurses at the front who get the praise, but believe me there are a huge number of people working behind the scenes ... There are many, many heroes within the NHS, not just doctors and nurses.”
Within minutes, Ms Patel issued a statement that all families and dependants of NHS support staff and social care workers who die as result of contracting coronavirus were being brought into the scheme, free of charge, effective immediately and retrospectively.
The home secretary had come under pressure to rethink the policy from Commons Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper, who told her in a letter it would be “unthinkable” to tell the family of someone who died as a result of looking after Covid-19 patients that they must leave the country.
In her statement, Ms Patel said: “Every death in this crisis is a tragedy, and sadly some NHS support staff and social care workers have made the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of saving the lives of others.
“When I announced the introduction of the bereavement scheme in April, I said we would continue to work across government to look at ways to offer further support. Today we are extending the scheme to NHS support staff and social care workers.
“We want to ensure families have the support they need and so this will be effective immediately and retrospectively.”
Her announcement came shortly after prime minister Boris Johnson revealed that the deaths of more than 300 heath and care workers of all kinds have been linked to Covid-19.
Ms Cooper welcomed the U-turn, saying: “The Home Affairs Committee has been pressing on this for weeks. It would be unthinkable to ask a family who had lost a loved one as a result of caring for people with Covid-19 to leave their home and the country when they have already given so much to the UK fighting against this awful virus.”
But she said the support and care staff should now also be included in the offer of free one-year visa extensions offered to around 3,000 migrant NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics whose working visas expire before 1 October this year.
“Why should those who care for and transport vulnerable patients and scrub the floors and door handles of the Covid wards be excluded from the NHS visa extension scheme?” asked Ms Cooper.
“The Government should now expand free visa extensions and waive the immigration health surcharge for care workers and low-paid NHS staff too. Making the lowest paid NHS and care workers pay thousands of pounds and wrestle with the UK immigration system while they are working to care for and support UK residents in the midst of this coronavirus crisis is unfair and wrong.”
GMB organiser Lola McEvoy said: “It doesn’t bear thinking about what key workers’ families who’ve lost their loved ones have been going through, but when you add in the extra insecurity of not knowing if you’ll be deported, it’s unacceptable.”
Welcoming the U-turn, Ms McEvoy said: “Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also an acceptance that – regardless who you work for, where you were born or how much you’re paid – if you have fought frontline during this pandemic, you and your family will be supported and treated the same.”
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Christine Jardine said the offer “adds insult to injury” by telling those risking their lives in hospitals that “their contribution will only be recognised if they die”.
“That is not good enough,” said Ms Jardine. “The home secretary should give all foreign nationals working in the NHS and social care and their families the indefinite leave to remain in the UK, with no costs or bureaucratic hurdles. It is the very least she can do.”
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