When Vanessa Janson arrived for a shift in an A&E department during the height of the pandemic, she was told that she no longer had a job. Since then, the 46-year-old New Zealand national has been forced to live off a diminishing pot of savings due to a bungled visa extension.
“I arrived on shift the day after my visa expired,” she told the Observer. “My husband, Carl, who also qualified for a free visa extension as my spouse, lost his right to work too, and had to give up the business he’d founded. So we’ve had nearly four months with no income and no entitlement to welfare.”
The family is among hundreds of overseas nationals to be left in legal limbo after the pandemic paralysed some visa application services. Janson claimed that she, Carl and their three children were effectively being driven out of the UK after 10 years working as an agency nurse for NHS trusts in Yorkshire.
In April, she was told she qualified for the free visa extension which the government was offering front-line workers during the Covid crisis. However, the extension was never applied and when her family visas expired at the end of July, she could no longer legally work. Since they have been living off rapidly depleting savings and estimate they have lost £20,000.
She is one of a number of people who have contacted us after they have been left in lengthy waits for their paperwork. Some say they have been on hold for seven months in a process which is supposed to take eight weeks, meaning they have lost their job or mortgage offers because of the delay; one man missed his father’s memorial service in the US because he would have been unable to reenter the UK without a valid visa, and a father-to-be, who has been waiting since April for a spouse visa, fears he will be deported before his child is born.
The Home Office told the Observer that it had adapted working practices in order to accelerate the backlog of applications and that emergency concessions allowed applicants to work while their application was processed. But many employers and landlords are reluctant to accept people who do not hold valid paperwork, or are in the process of applying, as they face a five-year jail term and unlimited fine if they are found to have contracted workers or tenants who are in the UK illegally.
Campaigners claim that healthcare workers like Janson have been let down by an overly convoluted system. “They have all worked tirelessly, often putting their own health at risk to keep us safe,” said Sara Gorton, head of health at Unison. “They certainly don’t have the time to understand the complex Home Office bureaucracy. They need help and clear guidance to navigate immigration processes as easily as possible, and one way to do this would be to grant all key workers on the Covid frontline indefinite leave to remain.”
The letter, confirming her entitlement to a visa extension from UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), stated that it would liaise with her employer and that she need take no further action. “Whenever I chased they said they had not heard back from Plan B Healthcare, the agency I worked for, but it told me that it had not been contacted,” she said.
The Jansons arrived in the UK on ancestry visas 10 years ago. Holders are entitled to apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) after five years of continuous residency, but the couple’s application was rejected in 2015 because they did not leave New Zealand until four months after their initial visas had been issued.
“I’d discovered I was pregnant soon after we applied, so we delayed our departure until I had the baby,” said Vanessa. “Because of that, those four months were docked from our residency record and we had to apply for new ancestry visas and start the five years from scratch.”
The couple had planned to reapply for ILR this year before the free visa extension was offered. “It seemed a godsend,” said Janson. “We were in the middle of a pandemic, I was working 12-hour shifts in A&E and we faced fees of nearly £12,000 to apply for the five of us, so the extension would have given us more time to save up.”
She has since risked the £2,389 non-refundable fee to apply for ILR for herself. Applications are usually refused if a current visa has already expired, but Janson’s has been granted due to the exceptional circumstances. However, Carl is still without legal status and the couple are reluctant to pay a second fee when his application may be disqualified under Home Office rules.
“You’re required to submit your earnings over the past three months and your job details, but Carl has had no job, no income and no valid paperwork since August because of the stuff-up,” she said.
“I had the choice of starting a new job and waving goodbye to my husband and children, or leaving the country with them.”
The Home Office told the Observer it would expedite the process if Carl applied and waive any penalties for overstaying an expired visa, but it declined to confirm this in writing to him. It blamed Janson’s nursing agency for the situation.
“In order for NHS workers to qualify for the free visa extension scheme, their employers are required to nominate them to UKVI as eligible,” it said. “In this case, that did not happen, but we have worked to ensure minimal disruption to the status of Mr and Mrs Janson and protect their right to work whilst considering their application on an exceptional basis.”
Plan B Healthcare did not respond to requests for a comment.
The Jansons said that they had received no such assurances from the Home Office and that four months without income had left them unable to afford speculative application fees for Carl and their children.
They are now relocating to Ireland where critical skills permits cost €1,000 each and 90% of the fee is refunded if applications are unsuccessful. “Carl’s lost the cafe and community hub he worked hard to build up, we’ve lost most of our savings and we’ve lost our faith in the UK government,” said Vanessa. “We feel the 10 years we have worked here have counted for nothing.”