THE NHS visa has brought in a number of welcome changes for health sector recruitment, but a senior trade unionist has said its exclusion of the lowest paid migrant workers has left many in “desperate straits”.

Narmada Thiranagama, national officer for Unison, said some their members had told how, caught in the hostile environment, their immigration status defined the treatment they received.

She was speaking at a Westminster police conference examining the transition to the UK’s new points-based immigration system, attracting skilled workers and its implications for post-Covid-19 economic recovery.

Thiranagama said it had been estimated the NHS was functioning with around 100,000 vacancies before the pandemic, and the social care sector with 122,000.

“While the NHS visa has brought in a number of welcome changes for recruitment to the health sector, it excludes the lowest paid migrant workers in the NHS who have been placed in desperate straits during the pandemic,” she said.

“And while it is called the NHS and social care visa, the new points-based system closes off overseas recruitment for all but one or two roles in social care.”

Thiranagama focused on the often unheard voices of migrant workers who had, during the pandemic, become caught in the “vice-like grip of both immigration restrictions and the pandemic”.

One of her members, a nurse, told her: “We go through painful experiences to work and live in the UK. Apart from paying all of these exorbitant immigration fees, our immigration status defines what kind of treatment we should get … I feel the sacrifice in my life is part of my work permit and visa application.”

Thiranagama added: “Why is it that mostly migrant health workers died of Covid? I always thought this is racism, and indeed it is listening to our migrant worker members caught in the hostile environment, caught under no recourse to public funds costs, caught by huge immigration fees … one member I spoke to paid so much money she had to nothing to eat apart from what they gave her for free in the hospital canteen.

“When will the UK treat migrant workers with dignity and respect? That dehumanising and cruel way that many migrant workers are treated during the pandemic should be a moral wakeup call for all of us.”

Dr Peter Walsh, from the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, said he would expect the immediate impacts of the new system to be masked by the pandemic.

He said: “For example employers are hiring fewer skilled workers than they might otherwise have been expected to … I would caution you not to be surprised if we see further upheaval to immigration policy over the next few years, as the government adjust the system to deal with those unexpected issues that may arrive.”

Director general for the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Systems Policy and Strategy Group, at the Home Office, Glyn Williams, said the points-based system had been a long time in the making. It had not yet been fully tested because the pandemic had significantly reduced travel and the number of migration applications.

“The system as a system is working but obviously I fully accept there are sterner tests to come in terms of its operation,” he said.

“We are planning to open up new routes this year, and going into next year probably the graduate visa, the new post study work visa. The Chancellor last week … referred to some changes to the highly skilled migration routes, namely, I think to put in place what is sometimes called a pure points basis, whereby migrants would receive a visa on the strength of their own attributes of various kinds, and would not be tied to an employer.”