The government, under pressure, backed down from its insistence that families of migrant workers who die from Covid-19 would not be allowed to remain in the UK. Twenty-four hours later, it backtracked on its policy that care workers and ancillary hospital staff would not be exempt from the NHS surcharge imposed on all immigrants to Britain.
The government’s U-turns are welcome, but not only are the changes half-hearted they also establish a division between “deserving” and “undeserving” immigrants.
The coronavirus crisis has created newfound admiration for low-paid “essential” workers, from nurses and care staff to cleaners and bus drivers, many of whom are migrants. There was hope that such respect would translate into decent policy over wages, benefits and immigration status. Not so.
The government’s new immigration bill maintains the distinction between wanted “skilled” workers and unwanted “unskilled” ones. Many charges imposed on migrants are immensely unfair. The health surcharge, for instance, is not, as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has claimed, to ensure that migrants make “a fair contribution towards our NHS”. Migrant workers already pay taxes, so are being charged twice. Nor is it a charge “to use the NHS”, as it is imposed whether or not a migrant uses the NHS. Most immigrants with a limited right to stay in Britain pay taxes but are denied benefits through the “no recourse to public funds” rule, often causing immense hardship.
Not only are immigration rules unfair, they are also divisive. Bus drivers or cleaners may be essential workers, but if you’re a migrant you still have to pay the NHS surcharge and don’t get an automatic visa extension. Some immigrants, the government is signalling, are more “deserving” than others.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist