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A group of unions including the Royal College of Nursing has urged the government to extend its free and automatic visa renewal scheme for overseas health and care staff on a “rolling basis” for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
This would ensure health and care staff could stay in the UK to help tackle a second wave of Covid-19 and would also demonstrate gratitude to those who risked their lives to care for patients, they said.
Between the end of March and 1 October nurses and other health workers from overseas whose visas were expiring had them automatically renewed free of charge.
As the initiative comes to an end and Covid-19 cases continue to rise, the RCN, the British Medical Association (BMA) and Unison have written to the home secretary, Priti Patel, demanding the offer is extended for the rest of the pandemic “as a matter of urgency”.
The letter (attached below) stressed the “vital contribution” international staff had made to the health service during the pandemic and flagged the “high proportion” of health and care workers from overseas who had died.
“It is clear we are now entering a second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the letter said.
“With daily cases reaching record highs, we need to do as much as possible to retain the skills and experience of our talented overseas colleagues as we have an incredibly tough few months ahead.
“We still owe these workers a huge debt of gratitude and the very least we can do is provide them with some certainty over their immigration status for the remainder of the pandemic.”
The letter called on the home secretary to “intervene to renew the visa extension as a matter of urgency, on a rolling basis for the duration of the pandemic, to reflect the ongoing crisis and to demonstrate that our thankfulness for the sacrifice of these workers has not diminished”.
“The very least we can do is provide them with some certainty over their immigration status for the remainder of the pandemic”
In addition, the unions wanted refunds for all staff who had already paid to renew their visa and for the government to ensure the process for renewal was “robust and streamlined” to ensure these staff could prioritise patient care.
The letter was signed by RCN chief executive and general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair, BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul, and Unison head of health Sara Gorton.
Commenting on the issue, Dame Donna reiterated the “vital contribution” of overseas nursing staff to the overall workforce and stressed the “significant pressure” they had been under in caring for patients during the outbreak.
“It is unfair that at the same time they should be worrying about arranging an extension to their visa,” she said.
“If the government wants to show support and recognition of those who have dedicated themselves to caring for UK patients, they should act now to grant automatic extension to visas throughout the pandemic.
“This will allow nursing staff to get on with their primary role of caring for their patients without imposing unnecessary uncertainty and stress.”
Meanwhile, Dr Nagpaul warned that the efforts of overseas health and care staff in recent months “must absolutely not go ignored”.
“The least we owe these committed staff is some certainty over their future in this country, while also ensuring talented staff are able to continue contributing their much-needed skills to the health and care sector through what look to be some intensely difficult months ahead,” he added.
In addition, Ms Gorton warned that with coronavirus infection rates on the rise, health and care services “are going to need all the help they can get”.
“The government must extend the visa scheme for frontline staff,” she said.
“Workers who’ve come to the UK to help the NHS in its hour of need must be spared the cost of extending visas.”
The Home Office has been approached for comment.