Originally in the Independent
I don’t base my politics on Lenin’s rhetoric, but in our current situation it’s difficult not to reflect upon and resonate with his remark that “there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”. The relative normality of just two weeks ago feels like a distant memory. Yet, as disruptive and difficult as social isolation is, it is incredibly important to listen to advice and stay at home.
Yesterday, along with Caroline Lucas, I argued for parliament to become virtual in a bid to ensure politicians follow our government’s public health advice, too. I’ve also been advocating for a universal basic income, and better protections for the most vulnerable in our society and key workers.
Last weekend I called on the government to end visa fees for key NHS workers from overseas. Not only is it the right and compassionate thing to do, the cost of doing it is a drop in the ocean compared to the £30bn additional spending already announced by the government to tackle Covid-19.
For those that aren’t aware, the “Immigration Health Surcharge“ adds £400 a year to the cost of a UK visa per person. This means an NHS worker with a family of four is required to pay fees of £1,600 a year. Under new government plans, the fees are set to rise to £624 a year per person, and will be also applied to NHS staff from the EU from next January.
There are more than 153,000 staff from overseas working inside the NHS, with one in four hospital staff from outside the UK. To my mind, it is disgraceful that our government was ever charging these people to work in our NHS and save lives – but to carry on charging them during a national health crisis is absurd.
They are heroes. They will save our grandparents, parents and friends. They deserve gratitude, not a bill.
This policy speaks volumes about how we treat key workers in this country, particularly those from overseas. And it needs to change.
In the short term, measures like waiving the visa fee are vital to both help our brave doctors, nurses and medics, and to protect our NHS and population from the coronavirus crisis. In the longer term, they need to be scrapped completely in order to send a powerful message to all NHS workers from overseas: you are welcome here and your contribution to our country is valued.
We also need to apply this same critique and thinking to how we treat other key workers. The carers and teachers, public service broadcasters and benefit administrators, warehouse supply chain workers and cashiers, the army and rescue services, train drivers and drainage managers, to name but a few. They have always been essential to the running of our country. We are better because of them.
They should not have been some of the first to worry about putting food on the table in a time of a national crisis. The many renters among them should not have been left out in the cold when the government announced protections for homeowners. And they should never have been disrespected, as so many of them were, by the label “low skilled.”
They are British and from overseas; they have different ethnic backgrounds; they are straight and LGBTQ+. And none of that makes a blind bit difference to the fact that our country depends on each of them, and is better for them.
I’ve never considered these people low skilled or unwelcome in our country. I hope the small minority of people who do will now take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror, reflect on these key workers’ vital roles in this crisis, and give them the respect they deserve.
During this crisis, and beyond, I will continue to push in parliament for measures to better protect our key workers, not least the waiving of the visa fee for our heroic NHS workers from overseas.