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Government’s immigration stance on frontline workers proves controversial

01 June 2020

On 1 May the Home Office published an expanded list of COVID-19 frontline workers’ occupations entitling them and their family members to a free and automatic one-year extension of leave. However, the measures announced to-date just serve to highlight that considerably more needs to be done

The extension is available to people working both in the NHS and in the independent sector and only applies where the existing leave of the worker and any relevant family members is due to expire on or before 30 September 2020. It is intended to allow them to focus on saving lives during the crisis.

Employers should be aware that employees with leave expiring on or before 30 September 2020 may be eligible under these arrangements, either directly, or as a family member.

The list is reproduced below:

  • biochemist
  • biological scientist
  • dental practitioner
  • health professional
  • medical practitioner
  • medical radiographer
  • midwife
  • nurse
  • occupational therapist
  • ophthalmologist
  • paramedic
  • pharmacist
  • physiotherapist
  • podiatrist
  • psychologist
  • social worker
  • speech and language therapist
  • therapy professional

The Home Office has been contacting NHS trusts and employers in the independent sector to compile a list of workers who are eligible for the extension, however there is still a risk that some workers may not be identified before they proceed to submit a paid-for application. Where this occurs, the applicant can email UK Visa and Immigration’s NHS team at to ask to withdraw their application and to be provided with a refund, but only if they have not already submitted their biometrics as part of the application process. The onus is therefore squarely on employers and individuals to access the provisions.

Controversially, other frontline health and social care workers, and in particular care workers and home carers have been excluded from the extension arrangements.

Employers should be alert to the possibility that where a frontline health or social care worker dies due to COVID-19, their family members may be eligible for a free and immediate grant of indefinite leave to remain. This provision was confirmed in a letter the Home Secretary to the Home Affairs Committee and was subsequently published on GOV.UK on 20 May 2020. The published guidance confirms the bereavement scheme is broader than initially envisaged, covering the family members of all NHS workers in all roles, as well as those working for an independent health and care provider, including providers in the social care sector.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also placed a spotlight on the fact that the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) acts as a form of double-taxation on most migrants who hold temporary leave for longer than six months, including those who work for the NHS. As we previously outlined in this article, the Home Office plans to increase the IHS from 1 October. Following sustained pressure in Parliament from MPs, the Government announced on 21 May 2020 that NHS and care workers will be made exempt from the IHS, with details of the scope of the exemption published in the near future.

Despite this change of position, the Home Office has failed to respond to calls to review its stance on the IHS and other immigration-related fees more generally. Possibly this is because research shows that where the cost of visas increase, there is relatively little decrease in the demand for them.

Unfortunately, the Home Office’s focus at the recent second reading of the Immigration Bill on a ‘high wage, high skill productive economy’ under the post-Brexit migration from 1 January 2020, and the very modest benefits of its proposed NHS visa indicates that it has not yet gotten to grips with the implications of the pandemic and the ending of free movement for the UK’s current and future immigration needs. At the very least, the Home Office should look again at what measures are likely to attract and retain vital healthcare workers such as expanding the scope of the occupations and employers covered and offering accelerated or immediate settlement, recognising that the global need for their skills has significantly changed since the NHS visa was initially devised.

More generally, the public’s perception of which workers are essential in the UK has now shifted away from the highly skilled and highly paid and towards areas where there are labour shortages or where the UK cannot afford to lose migrant workers. This will put pressure on the Home Office to design and continuously review immigration routes that address labour gaps across all skill levels, including across the health and social care system, in agriculture and the supply of other food and consumer goods, as well in information technology and telecommunications.

The pandemic should also prompt the Home Office to pay greater attention to the cost of its policies to migrants in terms of their financial stability, productivity, sense of security and mental well-being, rather than justifying them based on the benefits of being allowed to live in the UK.

Employers and other stakeholders will have a crucial role to play in providing their insights and recommendations on the design of the UK’s immigration system. This will be the case in the lead-up to the end of this year, as well as once the new system has been introduced. In engaging with the Home Office, other Government Departments and the Migration Advisory Committee, they should not be afraid to seek to move the conversation beyond historic labour shortages and highly skilled occupations, and towards building an immigration system that is truly fit for purpose.

If you have any queries or comments about any of the topics discussed in this article, please get in touch with a member of the immigration team.

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