Hospital workers protest the hostile environment for migrant workers outside hospital

For Migrant NHS Workers, ‘Clap for Heroes’ Rings Hollow

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The sound of another weekly clap echoes down hospital corridors where migrant NHS workers battle subsequent pandemic waves, struggling with the lack of security of their status under the hostile environment and its extension to those from the EU as free movement ends.

The UK’s ‘Clap for Heroes’ movement commenced amidst England’s third lockdown, as the first applause of 2021 began on Thursday 7th of January.

The organiser of the initiative Annemarie Plas, originally named ‘Clap for Carers’, now changed to heroes to be inclusive of people’s struggles during the pandemic, stating “everyone can be a hero.” Despite calling for an end to the motion in May due to it becoming too “politicised”, Ms Plas encouraged families across the UK to show their respect to healthcare professionals and lift spirits. 

While some are welcoming back the initiative, there has been significant backlash. Healthcare workers have also urged against clapping in the streets, including breast cancer surgeon, Yazaan Masanaat who tweeted “Just stay at home and avoid getting infected and infecting everybody else that is more helpful.’ Labour leader, Keir Starmer also chimed in on the Twitter debate, stating it “isn’t enough” to clap as NHS workers and carers should be “paid properly and given the respect they deserve”. 

Lack of Benefits For Migrant Workers

Migrant workers within the NHS feel as though they are “replaceable” and are being left behind due to the end of free movement which has worsened the hostile environment in the NHS. Despite the countless hours they work while risking their lives, many still have to pay £624 per year for NHS services.

They also have to pay out Visa fees anywhere between £610 to £1408. Some doctors, nurses, and allied professionals were offered free Visa extensions. However, lower-skilled migrant NHS workers, including cleaners and porters did not qualify, making them even more insecure in their jobs. 

Clap for Carers rebranded as Clap for Heroes returned in third lockdown [Image: GRM Daily]

Unlike other European countries such as France, the UK government will also not be issuing a pay rise to staff in the healthcare industry. The UK’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock has yet to guarantee an increase in pay before the independent pay review board in May 2021. Migrant health and social care workers are already struggling to keep up with payments to live and work in the UK due to low-income levels. 

In response to this, healthcare unions representing over 1.3 million workers, including many migrants, have formed an alliance and urged the general public to push for pay increases for the sector. Sara Gorton, Unison’s Head of Health, spoke up on the topic, stating “Clapping has been a way of showing support, but the government now needs to pay up.” 

Migrants Workers Face Uncertainty

The Clap for Carers initiative may have lifted the nation’s spirits in 2020, however, since Brexit, many migrant workers in the healthcare sector are uncertain about their future. In the NHS alone, there are 170,000 migrant employees who have battled on the frontline to combat COVID-19, despite the lack of clarity on their immigration status. Many have yet to receive Indefinite Leave to Remain status, which will enable them to settle and work in the UK.

Migrant’s status uncertainty adds to the issue of reduced staff numbers, as the new ‘skilled worker visa’ income level requirement leaves out a lot of key workers in the health and care sector. This has resulted in a significant amount of vacant posts within the NHS which could only get worse as visas run out. 

The lack of staff is also due to COVID, stress-related illnesses and further staff deaths. The UK has one of the highest healthcare staff COVID death rates, with over 640 reported deaths that mostly include ethnic minorities. With staff deaths on the rise, the NHS has started to buckle with over 30,000 patients in hospital across the UK

Despite the decline in staff, many doctors are awaiting biometric residence permits from the Home Office. This provides proof of the right to reside and work in the UK. The permit approval process normally only takes around 7 to 10 days. However, some highly-qualified doctors have been waiting for months. This not only has an effect on the NHS and the livelihood of healthcare professionals but also impacts their families who are waiting to join them in the UK.

There is currently a private members bill being debated regarding indefinite leave to remain status for health and social care workers which was put up by Christine Jardine, Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West. The first reading is now complete, with a second reading due on Friday 15th of January.

This bill, if successful, has the potential to improve the lives of foreign nationals working in the health and care sector. As the NHS battles this crisis, it’s time to put our clapping and show of appreciation firmly into practice.

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