‘Workers from overseas play a huge role within the NHS – we deserve to feel valued’ Dr Alex Vallakalil in The Independent

Photo by Rusty Watson on Unsplash

Today marks the first ever Overseas NHS Workers Day, organised by Dr Pushpo Hossain, of the Doctors’ Association UK, and supported by the Unison trade union and a number of other organisations.

Almost 14 per cent of NHS staff identify as non-British, with nearly 200 different nationalities represented within our health service. Among NHS doctors, 30 per cent were born overseas. The international medical community has formed a massive and crucial part of the NHS frontline, with members risking their lives to look after patients with Covid-19.

As an overseas NHS worker myself, I have felt the impact of being alone during a pandemic, more than 5,000 miles from home and family. I’m delighted by an initiative which celebrates the contribution of the international medical community during this crisis, and raises awareness of some of the issues international staff face.

Chief among these issues is immigration status. Indefinite leave to remain (ILR) or permanent residency is currently awarded to those with Tier 2 visas who have lived in the UK for a qualifying period of five years. I’m originally from Kerala, India, where I was born into a family of doctors who inspired me to gain international experience within the NHS after completing medical school in India. I will only be eligible for ILR in 2023, which as a frontline worker, adds an extra layer of stress to be uncertain about my fate in this country.

Many of my NHS colleagues have faced delays in obtaining a Biometric Residency Permit, without which we cannot rent accommodation, apply for a training post, enrol our children in school, apply for a driving licence, or even open a bank account. It’s not unusual for DAUK to be contacted by doctors unable to travel home to see dying relatives because of delays receiving this permit.

I’m currently a trainee in psychiatry in the Oxford Deanery. Being an international doctor in training on a Tier 2 visa is not straightforward. To apply for any out of programme experience, research, or training, brings with it mountains more bureaucracy. I truly believe that international minds could devote more energy towards boosting clinical innovation within the NHS if we didn’t have to worry endlessly about our expiring visas, and research repeatedly shows the material and psychological benefits of gaining permanent residency.

The NHS has significant staffing and retention issues, with more than 88,000 vacancies in England alone; vacancy rates are approaching 10 per cent in some areas. Visa challenges and uncertainties contribute to these issues and have a drastic impact on the attractiveness of working as a doctor in the UK.

Progress of sorts has been made – for example exempting international NHS staff from the immigration health surcharge, which was a huge financial burden for doctors waiting to start work or renewing their visa. This came as a huge relief. 

The government has also introduced ILR for the dependents of staff who die during the pandemic while caring for Covid-19 patients, though not for staff who survive. I feel this is morally reprehensible and not in line with British values of fairness and respect. 

I can truthfully say that not once did I think of stepping back from the frontline. The call of duty has driven me to give the best to my patients. This is a spirit that all doctors and other NHS staff share. But we expect this to be recognised, and our hope is that us “Covid Soldiers” will be rewarded with ILR, showing that we are valued, and our sacrifices appreciated.

I would like to proudly call the UK my “home away from home”.

Dr Alex Vallakalil is a trainee psychiatrist and part of the Doctors’ Association UK

Read the original article here: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/nhs-covid-nurses-immigration-doctors-b1812892.html