The UK immigration system has never been smooth to navigate. The Home Office is infamous for its extortionate fees and interminably long wait times.
Under the disruption of COVID-19, the slowdown in operations (including a lack of appointments, delayed processing times and the suspension of priority services) has made life unbearable for many people who rely on a visa to live in the UK.
Tilly is a 39-year-old NHS surgical assistant who lives with her husband and three children. She has called the UK home for 20 years, and has worked for the NHS as a surgical assistant for the past three years. She’s been working relentlessly throughout the pandemic.
Yet, from the way she is being treated by the UK visas and immigration system, her loyalty to the NHS has not been reciprocated.
We put all the money we had into covering the visa fee
Originally from Ghana, Tilly and her whole family rely on a family visa to stay in the UK. As her husband is completing a masters, Tilly is currently the sole breadwinner for her family.
The cost of a family visa renewal is £6,200. Tilly is on a salary of £21,000.
As she explains: “When the pandemic was first beginning, the government gave an opportunity for a one-year visa extension to NHS staff. I thought I fell into that category, but it turns out if you’re not qualified or registered, then you’re not a part of it. Even though I’ve been working in the NHS for three years, I’m not qualified.
“We put all the money we had into covering the visa fee. We had to turn to friends and family to help us raise the money. The process for renewing the visa is both online and offline: you pay the fee online, and then book an appointment to submit your documents. Then they begin processing it.
“But we paid the online fee, the money left our bank account, and there are no available appointments. My husband and I are constantly refreshing the page, and waking up at midnight to see if there is new availability.
“We have three months now to book the appointment, but none are available. Once, we saw a free appointment, but by the point we had clicked on it, it had already been taken.”
Between a rock and a hard place
Tilly is now in a precarious limbo where she’s parted with all the money in her account, yet she cannot complete the first step and get her application in for processing. Yet with the Home Office website not displaying any appointments, she is desperate to speak to someone about her situation.
“They provide a premium rate telephone number to contact. But I tried the number and nobody picks up. It opens at 9:00am, and my husband and I begin calling at 8:58am. As soon as we get connected, we are told we are 79th in the queue, or something. We are ready to wait, but after around 8-10 minutes, the call cuts out. And the £10 is gone.”
With all the delays in the process, her family visa has now expired. And without an appointment confirmation from the Home Office, Tilly and her husband are unable to prove to employers that they can work in the UK.
She explains, “My husband finished his Masters on 18 August. He started signing up for shifts with the NHS, but because we have no application number and our visa has expired, he cannot work. All we need is a reference number that the NHS can cross-check with the home office. But without this, I’m at risk as well.”
It makes me feel useless, it’s so stressful
Tilly is waiting for 28 August to be paid, but is worried it could be her last pay: “I’ve got nothing in my account. Everything is hand to mouth right now. We don’t have enough to eat. Right now, I am getting by on tea and biscuits at work.
“All our money for food is to feed the children and make sure they have school uniforms. We have to make sure they are ok. It makes me feel useless, it’s so stressful.”
As a loyal and dedicated NHS worker who has been relentlessly serving the public on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tilly feels betrayed.
“The UK government is using the African and Black community to build their economy. I’ve worked so hard, full-time, right from the beginning when I came to this country. Yet, when I renew my visa, I have to pay a £1,000 surcharge to use the NHS. It is not fair. It is ridiculous that they charge NHS workers to use the NHS. We have to work day and night to pay our bills and save up for the next visa.”
The health surcharge was introduced in 2015 as part of the Home Office ‘hostile environment for migrants’. It is an added upfront cost to visa applications that presents additional financial barriers to migrants.
UNISON: ‘This disgraceful treatment’
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis has written directly to Home Secretary Priti Patel about Tilly’s case. He said: “Members like Tilly have been on the frontline caring for us. They do not deserve this disgraceful treatment.
“It cannot be right that Tilly and her family are excluded from the visa extension scheme, left in limbo and going hungry because of the Home Office. It’s time for the government to scrap the immigration health surcharge and properly reward key workers on the COVID frontline with Indefinite Leave to Remain”.
Confronted with the faceless monolith of the UK Home Office, all Tilly can do is hope and keep refreshing their website: “All I can do is wait and pray. Every minute my husband and I are checking the website to see if there’s a change. I just feel so down and useless.”
Borders are often understood as external, but the reality is that they are intimately invasive and psychologically damaging. Whilst UNISON is standing by Tilly’s side and trying to advocate for her, there are doubtless thousands of other people in the same situation.
Update on 16 September 2020: Tilly has managed to book an appointment with the Home Office to submit her documents, at a further cost of £500.