It’s encouraging to see more people waking up to the importance of our migrant key workers. The pandemic has meant that the regular right-wing scare stories have been displaced by frontpage splashes about our healthcare heroes. Boris Johnson has learned the hard way that you can’t get away with publicly praising key workers whilst making their lives harder. Last night’s U-turn on the immigration health surcharge (IHS) is a great result – made reality by years of applied pressure against the hostile environment from grassroots activists, and years of a Labour Party channelling this energy into a fairer migration policy. Unfortunately, it comes against the gloomy backdrop of the government pushing ahead with more anti-migrant policy.
This week, parliament voted through the disastrous immigration bill, marking the second time in a decade that a Conservative government has chosen to retroactively remove the rights of people who have settled here. The Windrush scandal was the direct consequence of the government’s decision to pull the carpet from underneath Commonwealth citizens in 2014. From next year, EU nationals will be subject to the same hostile environment measures – including the IHS.
Of course, that’s assuming they qualify. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, under current immigration proposals, 69% of the UK’s current EU workforce would be ineligible for a visa. That is 90% of EU transport and storage workers, 75% of EU agricultural workers, 59% of construction workers, and, crucially, 66% of the people currently working in our health and social care sector. With 40,000+ nursing and 120,000+ social care vacancies already, that’s one hell of a key worker shortage.
The message to migrant key workers remains clear: thank you for your work and your money; now please close the door on the way out. One of the Home Office’s first announcements during the pandemic was that many so-called “low-skilled workers” in the NHS – carers, nurses, porters, cleaners – will also be unable to apply for UK work visas from January 2021. This is just one reason why I tabled a reasoned amendment to stop the bill in its tracks. Waiving the surcharge for healthcare workers alone is a hollow victory if they can’t make their lives here.
Labour was right to push to exempt migrant NHS staff and carers from charges during coronavirus. It’s worth pointing out that our de facto policy position remains scrapping the entire 2014 Immigration Act, which includes provisions like the IHS, for everyone they apply to, not just NHS workers and carers. That means we must end the pernicious charging system for all migrants, not just those who are most visible at the current time.
Last month, we saw the deadly consequences of current policy when a Fillipino man known only as Elvis died from coronavirus in his own home. Charity workers said he was deterred from coming forwards by the dual fear of medical costs and being reported to the Home Office. His tragic death makes it clearer than ever that as well as scrapping the IHS, we should also end data sharing between the Home Office and the NHS. This is something that the BMA and Doctors of the World have outlined their support for at the current time.
Coronavirus is another important reminder that public health is precisely that, public, and that nobody in the UK will be free from coronavirus until everybody in our society is free from it. Universality was the founding principle of the welfare state and must underpin our country’s approach to the coronavirus crisis and its economic aftermath: providing help to all who need it to get the country back on its feet. That includes migrants, wherever they come from, whatever their occupation.