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Home Office must end discrimination against social care and NHS support staff and include them in visa extension scheme

15 June 2020

Excluding care workers and lower-paid NHS staff from the fee-free NHS visa extension scheme is unfair and fails to recognise the scale of their contribution to the UK fight against Covid-19, found the Home Affairs Committee in its report on Home Office preparedness for Covid-19 (coronavirus): immigration and visas.

The Committee has called on the Government to address the discrimination against health and care workers in lower-paid and lower-profile roles by expanding the eligibility for fee-free one year visa extensions to include all NHS and social care staff, regardless of job role or pay grade.

A care worker, hospital porter or cleaner, working on the frontline of the Coronavirus crisis, who needs to renew family visas this summer could be facing costs of thousands of pounds. The Committee says that it cannot be right that, at a time when they are providing a vital and life-saving service for the country, non-UK health and care staff have to worry about their status and residency in the country.

The Committee also calls on the Government to go further in recognising the immense contribution of frontline health and care staff by setting out new arrangements to offer citizenship and permanent residency to those on temporary visas who have given so much during this crisis.

The Committee recommends temporary lifting of  'no recourse to public funds' (NRPF) conditions so that individuals without access to benefits are able to adequately support and protect themselves and their families during the pandemic. 

The Committee further warns of the impact that the long-term economic consequences of Covid-19 will have on the wider visa system. With many in the UK on visas with conditions such as income requirements, the Government should examine how it can introduce flexibility to compensate for unexpected changes in circumstances during the pandemic.

Chair's statement

Publishing the report, Yvette Cooper MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"NHS staff and social care workers have been heroes on the frontline against Covid-19 and they shouldn't be having to wrestle with the immigration system or worry about their status or hefty visa renewal fees.
Our NHS and social care system have relied on the contributions of those who have come from abroad throughout this crisis. Making the lowest paid of those workers pay thousands of pounds during the Coronavirus crisis when they are helping and caring for everyone else is unfair and wrong.

It is very welcome that the Government has agreed to waive the Immigration Health Surcharge and extend the bereavement scheme for NHS and social care workers. However, most care workers and low-paid NHS support staff are still excluded from receiving the free one-year visa extension granted to clinical staff, and as a result could be facing costs of hundreds or thousands of pounds this summer. 

Excluding the care workers who hold dying residents' hands, the cleaners who scrub the door handles and floors of the Covid wards, or the porters who take patients to intensive care is just wrong. 
The Government must ensure that all measures of support for NHS and care workers apply to all frontline staff equally, irrespective of grade or job title.
The Government should also show lasting appreciation to critical NHS and care workers for the huge contribution they have made to the UK during this crisis with new arrangements to offer citizenship or permanent residency. And it needs to make sure that these exceptional Covid-19 circumstances aren't pushing families into desperate hardship because of the NRPF rules which prevent them getting the urgent support they need".

Summary of key findings

Recognising the contribution of all NHS and social care workers

The Committee welcomes the Government's decision to remove the Immigration Health Surcharge for all NHS staff and social care workers. It is right that at a time when they have contributed so much, and in some cases put their own health at risk to provide care to others, they should not have to pay for care themselves.

However, the Government is yet to open free visa extensions to the same range of employees, limiting the offer to NHS and social care workers in a medical role. The Government must recognise the vital role that all employees in these sectors are providing during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that many currently excluded will be in lower paid roles and face a higher financial burden.

The Committee calls on the Government to ensure that all NHS staff and care workers, irrespective of grade, job title or visa route, are offered the same one-year visa extension to recognise the contribution they have made. Through applying a broader definition for other benefits, including those for death in service, the Government has demonstrated that any barriers can be overcome.

In recognition of the contribution made by those at the forefront of fighting Covid-19, the Government should set out new arrangements to offer British citizenship or permanent residency to health and social care workers currently resident on short term visas. The Committee believes that people who have given so much, and in many cases risked their own health, for the nations and peoples of the UK, should be assisted to become permanent members of the society to which they have dedicated themselves.

Temporary visa extensions

The Committee welcomes the Home Office's recognition of the problems faced by individuals with soon-to-expire visas who are unable to travel because of Covid-19 and the offer of temporary visa extensions. However, individuals cannot solely rely on the Home Secretary's discretion and will need the legal assurance that they can continue to live and work in the UK. The Home Office should bring forward a statutory instrument clarifying the legal basis for both the extension of leave for all individuals who are unable to leave the country before the expiry of their current visa, and for the automatic extension of leave offered to NHS staff.

With lockdown and social distancing measures still in force, and international travel heavily restricted, the Government should extend its offer of temporary visa extensions to any visas which are due to expire before 31 July 2020.

Communication about the availability of visa extensions must also improve. The Home Office should be proactive and contact all individuals whose visas are due to expire before 31 July 2020 to inform them of the steps they need to take to extend their visa.

The Government should also clarify whether an individual who does not apply for a visa extension, and overstays due to Covid-19, may retrospectively gain the extension to which they would have been entitled had they known about the department's offer at an earlier point. The Committee has previously written to the Home Secretary to recommend blanket visa extensions be considered as a mechanism for ensuring individuals do not overstay their visa unintentionally, due to travel restrictions or other Covid-19 related issues.

Recognising the financial impact of Covid-19 on the visa system

The economic impact of Covid-19 has caused disruption to many lives. Through no fault of their own many have lost their jobs or seen their income significantly reduced. This can have serious consequences for individuals and families in meeting visa requirements.

The Home Office should show flexibility in their assessment of applications and endorse those that on balance would have met all criteria had it not been for the Covid-19 crisis. The report highlights a range of options for adapting the Minimum Income Requirement to take account of unexpected loss of income due to Covid-19. These can include allowing a greater range of income sources or allowing an extended assessment timeframe to compensate for furlough or sickness leave.

The Committee calls on the Home Office to implement a combination of these measures that allows appropriate flexibility to allow for the ongoing economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. A thorough review should also be conducted of the Minimum Income Requirement and how the acceptable evidence requirements for each permitted income source will be affected by Covid-19 related disruption.

Temporary lifting of NRPF

The Government should immediately make arrangements for the temporary lifting of NRPF conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government should also direct local authorities to provide support where required by others who are destitute (or at risk of destitution) and who would otherwise be prohibited from accessing public funds, and it should provide funding to allow this to happen.

There must be clarity that all who are prohibited from having recourse to public funds must have access to the support they need during this crisis, and funding provided to ensure that happens.

EU Settlement Scheme

Uptake of the EU Settlement Scheme has been good, with three million grants of status having been made with a year until the deadline. However, concerns remain over the ability of vulnerable people, and others who may find it difficult to apply, to access the scheme.

Once the crisis has abated to a sufficient extent, the Home Office should step up efforts to support those who have not yet applied and provide details of how it intends to achieve this.

Low rates of applications on behalf of children and young people in care highlights the need for action in this area. Local authorities should increase efforts to identify young people in their care who need to apply. Once identified the Government should consider making an automatic grant of settled status for all children in care and care leavers.

Further information

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