A victory for migrant workers

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - May 23, 2020 - 12:00am

Thousands of Filipino migrant healthcare workers and their families in the UK no longer have to worry about where they’re going to find the money to pay the fee to access healthcare. The GBP 400 a year (P24,800) National Healthcare Service (NHS) surcharge has been at the centre of political controversy since the coronavirus crisis began. The debate became even more heated as it became clear how necessary migrant workers are to the cash-strapped NHS, as the death toll from the coronavirus mounted. Among the dead 42 Filipino NHS workers, a shocking 2 percent of all the NHS deaths, though Filipinos account for only 1.54 percent of staff. The fee has been paid regardless of whether the migrants charged actually use healthcare services, and it was due to rise even further.

It took little more than a day for the Johnson administration to make a complete u-turn on the issue. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister himself defended the policy, with other officials supporting him right up until Thursday morning, but by the afternoon it was gone. It is a salutary demonstration of the workings of a democratic and diverse society in crisis with the wellbeing of the Filipino community here at stake.

Ken Lambatan’s death was announced shortly before the United Kingdom came to a halt for a minute’s silence to remember NHS staff who have lost their lives in the battle against COVID-19. The 34-year-old nurse worked in the cardiac unit of St George’s Hospital here in London. “Ken was very popular with staff, and described as a ‘true gem’ by those that knew him well. He was dedicated to his role as a research nurse here at St George’s, and was as popular with his patients as he was with colleagues,” Jacqueline Totterdell, chief executive of St George’s Hospital and Professor Jenny Higham, principal of St George’s, University of London wrote, leading the tributes to Lambatan. Tragically, as a migrant, Lambatan had to pay the surcharge for access to the NHS healthcare, even though he risked his life to care for patients within the system and in the end, most cruelly, he paid the ultimate price and died under the care of that same system. ‘Our thoughts go out to his family, friends and colleagues at this time,’ the hospital statement said. Well, I guess the UK government and NHS got their money’s worth.

The Filipino Nurses Association UK said one nurse in Wales has to pay almost GBP 10,000 for his visa and his wife and his two kids. “He is in hospital at the moment due to COVID-19. So can a staff nurse afford to pay this?” asked Francis Fernando, who leads the group. “It’s almost half of his yearly salary. Totally unfair.”

Their call was backed by Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), who said: “The immigration health surcharge is a grossly unfair financial burden. The government must drop this charge as a matter of urgency.” Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden, president of the Doctors’ Association UK said: “The Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) for NHS workers is a cruel and unnecessary policy which must be scrapped. Doctors from overseas have told us that this policy has made them feel unwelcome in the UK. The fact that the charge has been increased even further during the COVID pandemic has decimated morale amongst our overseas workforce.”

A regular political set piece here is Prime Minister Questions. Every Wednesday at noon when the House of Commons is sitting, the Prime Minister answers questions from Members of Parliament. At PMQs on Wednesday, the Leader of the Opposition, Kier Starmer of the Labour Party challenged Johnson: “Does the prime minister think it is right that care workers coming from abroad and working on our front line should have to pay a surcharge of hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds to use the NHS themselves?” Johnson defended the policy saying it was “the right way forward.”

By the evening it was clear Johnson was facing a growing rebellion from ranking Members of Parliament within his own party. One said: “I’m very proud of my party but this is not its finest hour. These people have saved lives, then we give them a bill.” The former Tory party chair and the last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten said the fee would be “immoral and monstrous.”

Migrant health and care workers on the coronavirus frontline were furious at the Prime Minister’s response at PMQs. The charity Migrant Voice said that between the NHS surcharge and visa fees a family of four would pay GBP 50,000 over a decade. A migrant worker on a ten-year pathway to citizenship will pay visa fees every two and a half years to allow them to keep working. These are currently £1033. After three sets of fees, the worker pays for indefinite leave to remain, at the end of ten years for a further £2,389. The costs are far higher than in other European countries. “Ordinary families are being stripped bare. We know parents who are faced with the choice between feeding their children and renewing their visas,” said Migrant Voice director, Nazek Ramadan.

By 5 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, the surcharge had been dropped and a government statement released saying: “Work by officials is now under way on how to implement the change and full details will be announced in the coming days.”

Just moments after, the Embassy here released this statement: “The Philippine Embassy trusts that Her Majesty’s Government is doing their level best to address all concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they are aware of the huge and positive contribution of Filipino workers in the United Kingdom not only in this time of crisis but even before.”

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