The Government’s selective treatment of migrant workers during the COVID-19 crisis

Written by: David Hildebrand, Content Writer, Immigration Advice Service

Published: 25/06/2020

David calls for the 'Immigration Health Surcharge' to be scrapped for everyone.

In 2015 during an ITV leadership debate, Nigel Farage addressed the so-called issue of ‘health tourism’, arguing that foreign nationals should have their access to the NHS restricted. Farage claimed that up to £2billion was being ‘lost to health tourism’, failing to mention that this figure includes those who work and study in the UK and therefore already contribute financially to health services.

Unfortunately, members of the Conservative government parroted these misleading views, leading to the introduction of many of the NHS restrictions for migrants that we now see today. One example of this is the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) – a fee imposed on all migrants who apply to reside in the UK for over six months, provided they are not applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain. The surcharge was justified by the government as an attempt to tackle this alleged ‘health tourism’, as migrants arriving to work, study or join family members in the UK would now be required to pay this surcharge before accessing healthcare.

Five years on as we are in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, the negative impact that migrant workers supposedly have on the NHS has been thrown into stark contrast with their role in keeping the NHS afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Migrants in the UK make up a significant proportion of those who have worked in some of the most high-risk jobs such as social care workers, hospital porters and cleaners and health care assistants. All of them have worked for our betterment and wellbeing whilst simultaneously battling the government’s Hostile Environment policies – including the IHS – which continue to make life harder for those not born in the UK.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there has understandably been a renewed sense of appreciation for our healthcare workers across the nation, which has found the IHS under increased scrutiny.

When it first came into effect in 2015, the original cost of the surcharge was £200 per year. This soon rose to £400 and is set to rise again to £624 this October. The surcharge is paid by migrants when submitting their visa application to reside in the UK, on top of visa fees and any legal costs. This can raise the total costs to exceed £1,000 per person and must be paid again if the initial application is refused and the applicant wishes to re-apply.

Thankfully, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the obvious injustice of imposing this surcharge on non-British born NHS and care workers who provide the very service they must pay to access, these charges have been waived for migrant workers in the NHS and care sector. Yet this only comes after a sharp outcry from the public and the work of organisations such as ALLIANCE who have pressured the government to scrap the surcharge. Prior to this, the government revealed it had no intention of waiving the fee.

It is important to note that these seemingly drastic changes and adherence to public pressure do not go as far as they need to. The government’s U-turn regarding NHS and care workers no longer being subjected to the IHS is of course a positive step, yet the extortionate fee remains in place for all other migrant workers who have similarly worked on the frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic. This seems reflective of the ways in which the government consistently categorises migrants into those it deems ‘valuable’ and those it does not.

For example, another of the government’s recent U-turns came as a result of its initial migrant bereavement scheme which excluded the family members of low-paid migrant workers. In short, this scheme promises to grant the families of migrant NHS workers who have died fighting the COVID-19 pandemic indefinite leave to remain. However, the scheme initially only applied to the family members of workers earning a certain salary or who were considered ‘high-skilled’.

This was challenged by Hasan Akkad, who started working as a hospital cleaner during the pandemic and posted a viral video asking the Prime Minister to change the bereavement scheme to include the families of all NHS workers.

Regrettably, what both the recent IHS exemption and the exclusionary nature of the initial migrant bereavement scheme show is that this government still fails to value all migrant workers. The IHS should be scrapped for all – not only those who are now deemed worthy by the government.

David Hildebrand is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of immigration lawyers based in the UK & Ireland (this link will take you away from our website).

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