Nurses from overseas should be exempt from extra healthcare charges, says the Royal College of Nursing, which has warned that the policy is “tearing families apart”.
Under current immigration policy, people who come to work in the UK from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) must pay a healthcare surcharge that has left some nurses facing bills of several thousand pounds.
“The introduction of the surcharge fee was an awful moment”
The system, which was introduced in 2015, means non-EEA nationals have to pay £200 per family member for every year on their main sponsor’s work permit.
In February, the government confirmed it would be doubling the cost from £200 to £400 later this year. Meanwhile, there are also fears that the policy could be extended to migrants from the EU after Brexit next year.
Evaline Omondi, a nurse from Kenya who is currently working in Luton, is among those who have been hit hard by the surcharge.
She was asked to pay £3,600 up front – a sum she could not afford – to cover two adults and her four children over a three-year period.
“It was shocking and embarrassing to see Britain being heartless, divisive and plain old nasty”
The hefty bill meant she was forced to take her two youngest children, aged six and eight, out of school in the UK and send them back to Kenya, she said.
“The introduction of the surcharge fee was an awful moment,” said Ms Omondi, who will lead a debate on the issue at this year’s RCN’s annual congress.
She said: “The fees had to be paid immediately so we had to take out loans to cover them, which still affect my family to this day. On top of the visa charges and childcare costs, we could not meet the cost and my children had to move back to Kenya.”
The end result was that her family unit was broken up and it was sometimes hard to have meaningful contact with her youngest children, she added.
“A family who came together is now in pieces, scattered all over the place,” she said. “I try to speak to them on the phone before they sleep but it is hard with the time difference and my work, so I sometimes don’t get to talk to them.”
RCN members will vote on a motion calling for nurses to be exempt from the surcharge at the conference in Belfast this weekend.
The government has confirmed that EU nurses and their families will be exempt from the surcharge and can continue to access healthcare as they do normally under the EU Withdrawal Agreement.
“We will want to ensure that any decisions on the long-term arrangements are based on evidence and engagement”
However, what will happen when Britain is actually out of the EU is unclear. In a response to a recent parliamentary question, the Home Office did not rule out extending the charges in future.
“Future arrangements on immigration policy after the end of the implementation period are to be confirmed,” said the written response from immigration minister Caroline Nokes.
“We will want to ensure that any decisions on the long-term arrangements are based on evidence and engagement,” it stated.
RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said surcharges for nurses should be dropped, especially given the widespread nursing recruitment difficulties across the NHS.
She will address the issue in her keynote speech at the RCN congress on Sunday, when she will highlight the vital contribution made by nurses from across the globe to health services in Britain.
“When facing staff shortages in NHS and care, the UK has depended on professionals from around the world,” she will say. “We are proud as a profession to have the best and brightest from over 200 countries around the world.
“But the government now seems hell-bent on showing, through its handling of Brexit and the treatment of people from the wider world, that they’re no longer welcome,” she will say.
The RCN leader highlighted that the nursing profession was among those rocked by the recent Windrush scandal, which cast doubt on the rights of some Commonwealth citizens – including nurses – to remain in the UK.
“Many of the Windrush generation were our valued colleagues for many years,” Ms Davies will say.
“It was shocking and embarrassing to see Britain being heartless, divisive and plain old nasty,” she will say. “It is shameful that families are being torn apart by this policy too – uprooting children from their family, friends and school.”
She will add: “The government must not put Spanish, Portuguese or Italian colleagues through same after Brexit. I say to the government today: these people keep the NHS running; they are the very last people who should ever be sent up-front invoices for healthcare – get your priorities in order.”