The British Medical Association (BMA) has called on the home secretary, Priti Patel, to grant indefinite leave to remain to all international doctors, which would remove restrictions on their ability to stay in Britain.
It came as health secretary Matt Hancock paid tribute to NHS staff from other countries, acknowledging that “a disproportionate number” of workers born overseas had died since the start of the outbreak.
“I think its fair to say that my admiration for those who work in the NHS, whether they come from overseas or were born here, it doesnt matter, my admiration is unparalleled,” he said during Sundays Downing Street press conference.
In a letter to the home secretary, BMA council chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul called for the Home Office to grant indefinite leave to remain to the families of all overseas medical staff who die in the pandemic.
He also said that many international doctors and healthcare staff may have to pay a surcharge for their own healthcare due to their immigration status.
The BMA chair said: “It is unfair to expect doctors currently outside of the UK who are willing to come to help in the crisis and other international doctors and healthcare workers already in the UK, who are prepared to risk their lives while providing care in the NHS, to pay for that care should they themselves need it.”
Dr Nagpaul also asked the government to grant special dispensation to medical students and healthcare workers to allow them to change employers and work in different areas without requiring another visa.
Mr Hancock announced on Saturday that 19 NHS workers had died from the coronavirus, and said he found the high proportion of people from minority ethnic backgrounds who had lost their lives working on the front line “really upsetting”.
In a video message recorded and shared on Sunday, Boris Johnson personally thanked several health workers from overseas by name as he admitted that “things could have gone either way” while he was in intensive care.
They included two nurses who stood by his bedside for 48 hours – Jenny from Invercargill in New Zealand and Luis from Porto in Portugal.
ONS figures released in December showed that around half of the increase in the health and social care workforce over the last decade has been from workers born outside the UK. A House of Commons briefing published last year also found that 13.1 per cent of NHS staff in England say they are not British.
Around 153,000 staff self-reported their nationality as non-British, with 21,000 people reporting their nationality as Indian and more than 18,000 saying they were Filipino.
Some changes to immigration rules have already been announced.
A visa allowing doctors, nurses and other health professionals from overseas to work in the NHS was introduced last month after a new points-based immigration system was also announced, with points awarded for specific skills and professions.
The health secretary said the new visa for overseas medical staff was introduced “precisely as a reflection” of the respect shown to those that had come to work for the health service.
Dr Nagpaul welcomed guidance from the Home Office which will allow medical professionals to extend their visa for a year without charge. The extension will apply to about 2,800 migrant health professionals who are working for the NHS and have UK work visas which are due to expire before 1 October.