Thousands of low-paid migrant care and health staff have been shut out of a government scheme that would save them thousands of pounds in visa renewal fees, says UNISON today (Thursday).
The frontline staff are dismayed the government has blocked them from receiving a free one-year visa extension, which has been granted to some key workers because of the pandemic.
The visa extension programme for health workers was introduced at the end of April and is only open to 3,000 NHS professionals, including dentists, physiotherapists, nurses, paramedics and psychologists, says UNISON.
The visa extension fee, which varies based on individual family circumstances, can cost thousands of pounds. It includes a separate charge for migrant workers and their families to use the NHS, despite the fact they already pay national insurance and tax, says UNISON.
This immigration health surcharge of £400 – rising to £624 in October – has been criticised by MPs from all parties as a way of charging workers twice for using the NHS.
The Prime Minister publicly exempted frontline health and care staff from the immigration health surcharge in May. But anxious workers still don’t know when the charge will be waived or if money paid upfront will be returned.
The decision not to make the free visa renewal scheme available to all migrant workers will mean care staff, hospital porters, cleaners and healthcare assistants – many employed on zero-hours contracts and earning the minimum wage – are hit hard, says UNISON.
The confusing and unfair way the visa exemption fees rule is being applied is causing stress and anxiety for cash-strapped workers battling the pandemic in care homes and hospitals, says UNISON.
Even the few workers eligible for the scheme are confused by the way it’s being applied. The Home Office is only waiving the fee for health workers whose visas expire between 31 March and 1 October 2020. Outside these dates staff will get no help, the union says.
UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “It’s perverse that the government’s scheme completely ignores the contribution of care and NHS support staff who have been putting their health on the line to fight Covid-19.
“Low-paid staff are being hit hard by these crippling charges. The free scheme must be extended to cover all care workers and NHS support staff whose visas expire this year.
“The Prime Minister also needs to make good on his promise to scrap the immigration health surcharge and do it now.
“The government’s handling of the scheme has made a bad situation worse. Spin and hollow promises need to be replaced with action. Ministers must scrap the visa extension fee for all care and health staff for good.”