By Dhairya Negandhi
As Coronavirus persists across the U.K. and travel bans have become the norm, the National Health Service(NHS) has been integral to the fight against the pandemic. But the contribution healthcare workers from overseas make to the NHS is often overlooked, especially against the backdrop of an imminent British exit from the European Union.
EU and overseas workers across the U.K. account for 11.1% of all NHS workers. This equates to upwards of 200,000 NHS members being of a Non-British descent. Before 2016, numbers of migrant NHS workers from the EU were steadily rising, with more than 75,000 EU healthcare employees finding work in the U.K. The figures took a short-lived dip in 2015, when anti-immigration sentiments were seemingly at an all-time high, just preceding the 2016 EU referendum that solidified the U.K’s intent to remove itself from the European Union. Curiously, following the Brexit decision, the NHS recorded surging numbers of EU migrants finding work in the healthcare service, now well above 100,000 despite raging national debates regarding freedom of movement and how best to deliver Brexit. In a similar manner, numbers of overseas NHS workers remained static in the years previous to Brexit, but authorities registered an uptick following the momentous decision.
Issues surrounding visas and immigration statuses began in 2016 but have carried on in recent years. While Brexit and its impending complications were delayed due to the global outbreak of Covid-19, EU and overseas workers, much like their British counterparts, took to the frontlines of the battle. It was announced that the government extended foreign workers’ visas for an extra year, allowing them to continue to work in the healthcare industry and live in the U.K until March 31st 2021. Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that 6,000 overseas NHS workers- mostly doctors- would be eligible for the extensions, but clearly there is a much more immense proportion of the NHS (support staff, paramedics, nurses, ambulance drivers, etc) that face the negative impact of the U.K’s immigration policies. With these extensions set to expire soon, post-Brexit confusion surrounding leaves to remain in the U.K and the right to work could begin to take hold.
Attempts by those in power to support the wider health and care sector during the pandemic are also visible, such as The Bereavement Scheme. This government initiative provides the family members of overseas medics who pass away after exposure to coronavirus permanent residency. In addition, applying for Health and Care visas has been fast-tracked and made cheaper, in the hopes that an uncomplicated route of access will boost a healthcare sector already under severe strain. But complications, confusion and questions continue to be part and parcel of overseas NHS workers lives, struggling to navigate a post-Brexit, mid-pandemic U.K.