Since the global spread of the Covid-19 epidemic exploded, every continent has had to deal with major worries: getting the infected people isolated and the sickest persons treated. Most citizens have had to stay home, unable to work or to see their family, parents or siblings.
For me, the main worry has been that my younger sister, an accomplished doctor working in Paris, our hometown, had to work in one of the busiest intensive care units in the country.
Imagine having to do such a work with a Sword of Damocles over your head…
This is probably how foreign health practitioners feel in this country. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the UK government has furthered its hostile policy towards foreign workers, EU workers and other non-UK nationals. And NHS staff have been deeply affected. A few days ago, the government even interrupted the helpline for EU citizens, as Channel 4's Georg von Harrach, highlighted on Monday.
In December 2018, as a foreign news correspondent in London, I participated in a support group for EU nationals distressed by their loss of rights, and interviewed some of them for the German public radio, DW.
One of them was Joan Pons Laplana, a Spanish nurse who has since been campaigning for workers’ rights tremendously. While his wife, in-laws and children are British, he is the only foreign resident in his family. Working in the digital team of the NHS, he was still employed on the basis of six-month-long contracts, facing turmoil to prove his residency or justify that he “will still be needed in the future”
Caribbean citizens also represent a large part of medical staff in Britain and are facing threats of deportation every day – as the Windrush scandal has shown us repeatedly since 2018.
Now, as the month of March ended with an overload of work for the NHS, heroic workers like Joan are deemed indispensable. Only a few months ago, they were regularly called undesirable.
In its large generosity, the UK government decided on Tuesday "to extend visas for a year for NHS workers from the EU and other countries” if their permits were to expire in the autumn.
“The Home Office says NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics with UK work visas due to expire before 1 October will have them automatically extended for a year so they can focus on fighting coronavirus,” reads the government’s website.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, announced that the extension will apply to around 2,800 migrant doctors, nurses and paramedics, employed by the NHS, whose visa is due to expire before that date.
So, after claiming for years these workers were not needed and could easily be replaced by British staff, the Home Office now tells them they are facing… another due line. A year. And that is only if their permit expires on the appropriate date…
If this doesn't show the profound truth about the government’s hostile policies towards foreign residents, I don't know what will. Foreign workers and health practitioners are not disposable items to be used at the Home Office’s convenience.
As a writer who covers migration, a former African news correspondent and a EU citizen myself, I can’t help thinking about my sister and friends working long hours in intensive care units. After long shifts, they already struggle to find food in supermarkets or available transport to go home. What if they had to worry about being evicted from their home too?
I then wonder why the government has only given these “key workers” a year. Why not 18 months, to be magnanimous? Or three? 12 months will only delay the pain of uncertainty.
As I hope many other residents and citizens of this country will realise, this government needs to come up with a plan to grant foreign healthcare practitioners with an appropriate, reassuring status, whether a “settled” one, a work permit or full residency, before they can use them in the frontline of the current health crisis.
The Home Office should extend the measure to those whose permits expire after 1 October. It's devastating to think a doctor with a permit expiring on 10 November 2020 could go to work risking their life every day knowing they’ll still be chased away in six months.
A lot of foreign doctors are also in the UK waiting for asylum to be granted to them, and have offered to help – yet they will not benefit from the UK’s new “generous” measure.
The UK government needs to urgently rethink its immigration policy; viruses don’t discriminate according to passports. And the fact that "the extension will also apply to their family members, demonstrating how valued overseas NHS staff are to the UK,” as the Home Office states, isn't quite as kind as is being suggested. If these people are truly appreciated, their “value” should not have a time limit.
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