The Tory immigration bill is no way to offer thanks to our NHS workers

The Prime Minister returned to work only a few weeks ago. His top team – chief advisor Dominic Cummings, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, chief medical advisor Chris Whitty and top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill – had all tested positive for Covid-19. While they recovered at home, Boris Johnson required hospitalisation and was treated in intensive care.

After leaving hospital, Johnson praised NHS staff for the “brilliant care” he received, saying: “I can’t thank them enough. I owe them my life”. He went further, naming the nurses who saw to him personally, including a EU national. As millions across the country take time out each Thursday evening to clap and show their thanks to key workers, not least NHS staff and care workers, it would seem Johnson has extra reason to show appreciation.

But Johnson’s first actions following his return to 10 Downing Street are a slap in the face to many of our frontline key workers, who are risking their lives to save others and protect the health of everyone in our country. The government has rushed to pass a new immigration bill that would end the current rights of EU nationals to continue working in the UK. And it seeks to end their current rights, creating a hole before the new immigration system takes its place.

There are 180,000 EU nationals working as NHS staff and care workers. Our health and social care system relies on their bravery, courage and dedication now more than ever. Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds was right to say that it is not in the national interest to seek parliamentary approval for kicking out key workers while they are on the frontline fighting a global pandemic.

The Prime Minister is hardly showing thanks to those NHS workers to whom he says he owes his life. A calculation has presumably been made that the public would rather prevent the NHS working at full capacity, by ending EU rights as quickly as possible, than prevent a rising Covid-19 death toll. Under this Tory government, Brexit is more important than protecting public health.

Labour was right to set a three-line whip against the immigration bill on Monday. As shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch said: “To those workers in our NHS who have had their visas extended for a year, the government did not do you a favour. You did us a favour.” It is deeply disappointing the current Tory government can show such a callous disregard to many tens of thousands of the heroes who have helped keep us safe and make our country work.

Keir Starmer’s call for NHS and care workers to become exempt from the immigration health surcharge is especially welcome – and already gaining cross-party support. Over five years ago, I wrote for LabourList that this surcharge was “an election stunt”. It is built around a fictional guesstimate of average use of all public services, including citizens, and not the additional impact of any migration. Funds raised from the IHS neither go to a local health authority nor even to the NHS. It is non-hypothecated and goes straight into a Treasury blackhole. With some application fees already up to 900% above their cost, this is yet another cash-raising ruse that does not improve the immigration system or the health service. It’s time the plug was pulled.

Things look set to go from bad to worse. While the government claims its plans for a new points-based immigration system rewards skills over salaries, the white paper only recommends points based on how much someone earns. This is set above what many highly-skilled workers earn in the NHS or in health-related research, and so it is likely to have a negative impact on a system already under significant pressure. Thomas-Symonds said it suggests to anyone earning less than £25,600 that they are “unwelcome” by the government – highlighting again that salaries, not skills, are what counts most in these Tory plans.

More than ever, we need a Labour government. The current leadership under Keir Starmer should continue to hammer home the message that the government is making a political choice – prioritising Brexit now over public health, as if a global pandemic and mounting death toll aren’t happening. The sooner a change in priorities, the better. Labour must continue to show the leadership so lacking in Johnson’s government.

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