We wrote recently about lockdown providing “opportunities to make gains against the Hostile Environment that seemed wildly optimistic at the start of 2020” especially for last month’s low skilled migrants, re-branded as the essential keyworkers they always were. There are so many differences in our individual experiences of the last few months, but here’s how three keyworkers in Greater Manchester have lived the reality of the government’s COVID-19 keyworker announcements. 

Lucy and Gladys both work in the NHS – Lucy as a nurse in training and Gladys as a health care assistant. Both have immigration visas that expire in the next six months. Both women contacted us for advice about their immigration situation during lockdown. They heard government announcements about automatic, free, one-year visa extensions and the u-turn on the Immigration Health Surcharge for NHS staff. They understandably wanted to know how that would affect them. Did they still need to make an application to extend their leave or were they covered by the announcement? Did they still need to pay the health surcharge? Given government fanfare around the announcements, Lucy and Gladys expected the answer to be straightforward. It wasn’t.

According to their employer, neither women work in roles covered by the one-year free visa extension. Yes, it turns out their employer – the overstretched, in the middle of a health pandemic, frontline NHS – needs to assess eligible staff and contact the Home Office on their behalf. But which staff are eligible and how would administrators in the NHS know? Both Lucy and Gladys have been told they don’t qualify and that they need to make applications and pay fees to extend their visas. But the Home Office list of eligible roles varies wildly from the specific (podiatrist) to the general (health professional) making it hard to fathom who exactly should be referred on to the Home Office. It seems the one-year extension is racking up yet more evidence of the inevitable injustices that occur when immigration functions are forced onto people within the community – a Hostile Environment speciality. Showing a lamentable lack of moral compass, other health keyworkers (hospital cleaners) and those working outside the NHS (supermarket staff or public transport workers) are not covered by the Home Office list at all.

And the situation with the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) gets even murkier. Following the government’s u-turn in late May, unbelievably there have been no changes to the rules, no new guidance or policy instructions to help people navigate the practicalities of the exemption for NHS staff. To make applications to renew their visas Lucy and Gladys have to fill in their IHS reference number. If they don’t have one, because they want to apply for the exemption, what should they do? How can an exemption application be made? The nearest to a clear answer for Lucy and Gladys is a media statement given by government ministers promising “to remove NHS and care workers from the NHS surcharge as soon as possible.” Our NHS keyworkers are left with reports of a media circus as their evidence of a promise made by a government under pressure to do the right thing by those on the frontline of our health emergency. When questioned by the opposition in parliament this week, the Prime Minister announced refunds would be available for those who had paid the IHS since 21 May, but astonishingly still gave no information about how to apply for the exemption itself. Echoing the ministerial announcement made nearly four weeks ago the Prime Minister simply said: “We are getting on with instituting the new arrangements as fast as we possibly can.

In the meantime, Lorna has been working as a carer for disabled adults. She’s three quarters of the way through the ten years’ of continuous immigration applications she has to make before she can stay in the UK indefinitely. That’s immigration application fees and the IHS to pay for her and her children every 30 months until her 10 years are through. Any break in the applications and she has to start the 10 years again.

During lockdown Lorna has worked full time as a keyworker while being the sole carer for her four children, two of whom are British. Last month she had to apply to renew visas for herself and two of her children at a cost of over £6,000. Unable to afford the fee, she applied for a fee waiver herself, but then inadvertently withdrew it in error.  By withdrawing her application, and creating a break in the chain of her immigration applications, she was left with no right to work, no access to public funds, and with her children’s positions in the UK in jeopardy. Lorna contacted us for help. Following our complaint, the withdrawal of her application has been recognised as the error it was. But what does this say for the care of our keyworkers? For the fragility of Lorna’s situation? For people who don’t have access to legal advice and lawyers to advocate on their behalf, challenge decision-makers and use the law to rectify injustices? How many more people like Lorna – keyworkers and others – will have faced immigration injustice during lockdown without legal advice?

We are certainly not all facing the impact of COVID-19 in the same way. Structural inequalities and systemic racism are written across the experiences of women like Lucy, Gladys and Lorna, working on the frontline of the pandemic in Greater Manchester. And protections offered to people subject to immigration control through lockdown have been piecemeal, contradictory and (in the case of the IHS) impractical. As lockdown continues to ease, we need to make sure government promises made at the height of COVID-19 are honoured, and that breakthroughs are not scaled back on the quiet when public attention turns elsewhere.