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Home secretary Priti Patel has announced that the free visa extension scheme for overseas nurses in the UK will continue for another six months, in recognition of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
It comes after unions including the Royal College of Nursing and the British Medical Association placed pressure on Ms Patel to extend the scheme, which was launched in March 2020 and was due to end at the start of October 2020.
The unions wrote to Ms Patel last month calling for the offer to be kept in place for the rest of the pandemic and renewed on a rolling basis.
Ms Patel today confirmed that she would extend it until 31 March 2021.
Under the scheme, eligible health workers from overseas whose visas are due to expire are granted a free 12-month extension.
Over the 12-month period it is expected that more than 12,000 health workers as well as their partners and children will benefit.
Ms Patel said: “We recognise the huge contribution healthcare professionals from overseas are making across the UK in fighting the devastating impact of coronavirus.
“We truly value the work these heroes are doing, which is why we’re renewing our free 12-month visa extension offer.”
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock added: “This visa extension will help to benefit healthcare professionals who have shown extraordinary dedication during this challenging period to protect all of us and our families from the threat of the virus.”
“We owe this vital group of staff a huge debt of gratitude and they should never have had to worry about their immigration status”
The scheme covers certain listed health professionals working in the NHS and the independent health and care sector, who will need to complete an online form to obtain the free visa extension.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, welcomed the move.
“Our international colleagues have worked tirelessly and selflessly during the pandemic, providing care and support as we all faced unprecedented challenges,” he said.
“This often came at the expense of their own health and wellbeing, and as we know, in too many cases, we have seen staff who came from overseas to look after people in this country tragically lose their own lives to Covid-19.
“We owe this vital group of staff a huge debt of gratitude and they should never have had to worry about their immigration status as they fought this virus on the frontline.”
However, Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said he was concerned that care workers did not appear to be included in the scheme.
When first announced, the free visa extensions were only available to international nurses, doctors and paramedics working in the NHS.
However, following criticism, Ms Patel expanded the offer to overseas midwives, radiographers, adult and children’s social care workers and pharmacists.
The RCN has been approached for comment.