Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 May 2020

Coronavirus: Syrian refugee sets sights on ending migrant health service fee

Hospital cleaner Hassan Akkad says the UK government is ‘always after’ the weakest in society

A Syrian refugee who cleans Covid-19 hospital wards wants to end the UK’s National Health Service surcharge that migrant healthcare workers must pay to access treatment.

On Wednesday, Hassan Akkad, who fled Syria in 2015, helped to force a government about-face over the exclusion of healthcare support staff from a bereavement scheme.

The scheme allows families of front-line support staff to stay in the UK indefinitely if the workers die from the coronavirus.

Under the surcharge scheme, migrant workers from outside the European Economic Area must pay £400 [Dh1,796/US$490] a year to use the NHS.

The fee will rise to £624 this year in a move that has been heavily criticised by opposition political parties.

Mr Akkad, who is also a filmmaker, said it did not make sense that NHS migrant workers, many of whom are not paid much, “be charged to access the very same institution” they work for.

Hassan Akkad, left, in protective hospital gear, in London last week. The Syrian filmmaker was part of the team behind the documentary 'Exodus: Our Journey to Europe', which won a Bafta in 2017. Hassan Akkad
Hassan Akkad, left, in protective hospital gear, in London last week. The Syrian filmmaker was part of the team behind the documentary 'Exodus: Our Journey to Europe', which won a Bafta in 2017. Hassan Akkad

“I think it has happened because the government doesn’t necessarily go to the corners of the hospitals to meet these people who are in the bottom of the pyramid when it comes to payment and when it comes to value and respect,” he told the BBC.

“The cleaners and porters and social-care workers are disproportionately non-UK nationals and they are on minimum wage.

"So I feel like the government is always after the weakest of society, the working class, the immigrants.

"Moving forward we just, as a nation, we can’t keep doing this.

“These people who’ve risked their lives, and literally the bare minimum that they can get is some support for their families, and value and respect for everything that they’ve done.”

Mr Akkad, who used to teach English in Dubai and fled Syria in 2015 after being detained by the Assad regime, estimated he would have to work 10 days to pay the £624.

“It doesn’t make any sense because we’re doing these jobs despite the risk,” he said.

Hassan Akkad. Courtesy Hassan Akkad
Hassan Akkad. Courtesy Hassan Akkad

On Thursday morning, Interior Ministry official James Brokenshire said the policy would be kept “under review”.

But Mr Brokenshire said the surcharge was “there to provide funding for the NHS and the basic principle that if you come to this country, that you are working, that you’ve made that contribution”.

Mr Akkad was speaking only moments before donning protective equipment to start another day cleaning the Covid-19 wards at Whipps Cross Hospital in London.

He began working there at the same time as Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to hospital for Covid-19 and eventually moved to intensive care in early April.

Mr Akkad’s impassioned plea to Mr Johnson to extend the bereavement scheme for hospital cleaners, porters and care workers went viral on Wednesday.

The government quickly reversed its decision after outrage online.

“I’m immensely proud, to be honest, to be doing this job because I know we’re helping the NHS," Mr Akkad said.

"Cleaners are as vital in the NHS as doctors and surgeons and consultants are.

“I have been working at the hospital for 50 days and I spend my day with cleaners and porters and social care workers.

"We work together, we go on lunch breaks together and I see the bravery in their faces, and what they risk to continue doing these jobs despite being on minimum wage.

“So when I heard the news that we are being excluded from the bereavement scheme, I felt it was so personal to me.”

Mr Akkad's role as a filmmaker included recording his journey from Syria to Europe for the BBC programme Exodus.

He pledged to continue fighting for the rights of his co-workers.

“For the past 50 days I’ve been observing everything that is happening around me," Mr Akkad said.

"I’ve been seeing my colleagues and every day I’ve been inspired by them.

“Being a storyteller it helped me. These very inspirational people that I work with and being around them all the time, five days a week, just helps me to get that message out.

"And I will not stop here.”

Updated: May 22, 2020 02:40 AM

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