How the Home Office is risking lives in the NHS

Even with massive NHS staff shortages, healthcare workers like Arun Panabaka have been forced to return to their home countries during the pandemic

With staff shortages across the NHS, the UK’s immigration policy is arguably punishing patients more than anyone else and potentially costing lives.

Arun Panabaka is a senior nursing assistant for the NHS, who came to the UK on a family visa in 2019. When the pandemic struck, he was one of the thousands of migrant workers who served the nation on the COVID-19 frontline.

Arun explains: “I’ve always worked in operating theatres. When the pandemic struck, I was redeployed to COVID-19 wards and worked in an intensive care unit. I had to leave my wife and child to go and stay in university accommodation for four months.

“It was really challenging. I had many sleepless nights, not knowing when I might get infected. It was a terrible experience seeing so many patients suffering. But to add to this, there just aren’t enough staff.

“I work at several London hospitals, and on shifts where there are supposed to be four staff, there are only two or three. There are so many patients you can’t cope. I believe more staff would save more lives.”

To add to his strain, Arun was preoccupied with worry about his visa expiring in October. “The government had said they would extend NHS workers’ visas, and I knew mine was due to expire.

“I used to check the immigration rules every single day. On top of the mental and physical strain of working through the pandemic, I was so anxious I would have to leave the country.”

In practice, the government only extended the visas of 3,500 migrant workers.

People are dying because there aren’t sufficient staff

The NHS reports over 100,000 vacancies in health and social care. In spite of this, the government is reluctant to employ or extend the visas of migrant workers like Arun. When Arun’s visa expired in October, he was forced to move back to India, leaving the NHS even more short-staffed.

The Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) argued that Arun’s role, senior nursing assistant, should be included on the shortage occupation list (SOL), a Home Office list of jobs that are in short supply in the UK, and are encouraged to be filled by migrant workers.

On 22 October, Home Secretary Priti Patel rejected the MAC recommendations, meaning that Arun, a qualified and experienced NHS senior nursing assistant, is now in India when he’s desperately needed in London hospitals.

“I was so upset when I heard about this decision,” Arun says. “People are dying because there aren’t sufficient staff. And even then, all the government wants to do is stop immigration.

“These immigration measures punish NHS patients. When there are so many vacancies, it makes me so uneasy to see what the government are doing. Even if half the empty jobs were filled, so many more lives would have been saved.”

In the UK only claps are good enough? Do they have no shame?

Arun’s manager says she’s keeping his job open for him until December, in the hope that the government will accept and implement the MAC recommendations and he might be able to come back. He still checks the government website every day.

“It doesn’t have to be this way, look at other countries,” says Arun. “In France, they increased the salaries of healthcare staff to recognise their work in the pandemic. Nurses and healthcare workers received an average monthly increase of €180.

“In the UK, only claps are good enough, and yet MPs are getting a £3,000 pay increase next April. Do they have no shame?

“There are so many people like me who genuinely want to work and contribute to the NHS,” he adds. “I am experienced and qualified. When the NHS is short-staffed, why does the government want to restrict us from working?”

UNISON strongly supports renewing the visa extension scheme as a matter of urgency, on a rolling basis for the duration of the pandemic. We also believe it is vital to widen the scheme to cover the whole NHS and social care workforce.

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