Indians and other foreign health and care professionals employed on work visas across the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK are set to benefit from a further free visa extension announced by Home Secretary Priti Patel on Wednesday.
These key workers, including midwives, radiographers, social workers and pharmacists with visas due to expire before October 1, will receive an automatic one-year extension.
The Indian-origin Cabinet minister said that the extension will apply to those working both in the National Health Service (NHS) as well as the independent sector, and also include their family members.
The latest move builds on Patel's announcement last month of a similar fee-free extension for NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics on the COVID-19 frontline.
"We are incredibly grateful to all overseas health and care workers fighting this invisible enemy," said Patel.
"We have already announced the extension of visas for NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics. Now we are going further by extending this offer to hundreds of other frontline health and care workers, both in the NHS and in the independent sector," she said.
Patel added that all the extensions will be automatic, free and include exemption from the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) for the duration of the extension.
The minister also confirmed that family members and dependents of healthcare workers, who sadly pass away as a result of contracting the coronavirus, will be offered immediate, indefinite leave to remain, or permanent residency.
In total, approximately 3,000 professionals working within the health and care sector and their families are set to benefit from the further visa extension.
The complete list of NHS roles being granted this option includes nurses, midwives, pharmacists, medical radiographers, paramedics, therapy professionals, occupational therapists, podiatrists, speech and language therapists, psychologists, biological scientists and biochemists, medical practitioners, dental practitioners and social workers.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "Frontline health and social care workers from overseas are doing extraordinary work in responding to this global outbreak.
"Around 3,000 vital health and care workers and their families will benefit from the extension, and we are hugely grateful to them for protecting the vulnerable and saving lives."
The government has said that those benefiting from the extension are providing essential services in response to the coronavirus pandemic and therefore it is important to "relieve the pressure" from the whole of the NHS, so it can focus maximum efforts on fighting the deadly virus.
The extension comes into effect immediately and is for all visas expiring between March 31 and October 1, 2020.
Those benefitting from this extension will be identified by health and care employers across the UK.
Any NHS worker who has paid for an unresolved visa application will be offered the option of a refund.
The Home Office said it will work with the Department for Health and Social Care and NHS Trusts to put these arrangements in place.
The move follows some concerns raised by immigration lawyers and experts around the statutory backing for Patel's announcement of NHS visa extensions earlier this month. It was feared that it would cover only some work visa categories and not others.
During a virtual hearing of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on Wednesday, Patel clarified that the Home Office is working with the NHS Trusts to determine the scope of the extensions so that they are not restricted to only a limited set of work visas.
"There is a discretionary option available under exceptional circumstances, and these are exceptional circumstances," she said.
Last week, in response to a question at a Downing Street briefing, Patel confirmed that the government was reviewing the health surcharge for NHS workers, in line with a long-standing demand within the medical community.
The annual surcharge of 400 pounds (USD 497) is imposed on anyone in the UK on a work, study or family visa for longer than six months in order to raise additional funds for the NHS.
Overseas doctors, including thousands from India, have branded the IHS as "unfair and discriminatory" because medics already contribute to the NHS in a direct way while paying all their tax dues.
It is hoped that the temporary waiver of the surcharge for the period of visa extensions may lead to a more permanent review of the fees, set to rise to 624 pounds per year from later this year.
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