24 Apr 2018

Britain leans on former colonies to alleviate NHS crisis amid Windrush scandal

At the same time as the Windrush generation’s disenfranchisement, Britain is undertaking a nursing recruitment drive in the Caribbean to help alleviate the one in 10 nurses who left the NHS in England and Wales – but at what cost?

The parish of Clarendon is a rural community bound to Britain. It’s the birthplace of Linton Kwesi Johnson, the dub poet who gave voice to the aggression and exclusion that post-war Caribbean migrants faced on their arrival. It is also where the body of Stephen Lawrence is buried.

I am one of many black Britons who can trace their roots to this region of southern Jamaica. In the past the parish has been ripe for recruits trying to escape the limitations of agrarian life through migration to the ‘motherland’. Despite the frequency of poverty it has also been a place of return for some homecoming Jamaicans.

One of those families to move here on return from Britain were the Johnsons. A family so fractured by the whims of Britain’s changing migration policy that the eldest son, Desmond, has found himself unable to get back into the country to see his adult children. It’s been 15 years since he’s seen his daughter, he said.

In the early 1950s, Desmond’s mother Icyline Johnson and her husband travelled to London on their British passports and left their children in Jamaica until they could afford to bring them to Britain. Some Caribbean migrants never did but when Icyline began earning £5 a week along with her husband’s £8 they sent for their children to join them.

In 1971 Desmond was among a generation of children who wrestled with parents’ abandonment and left Jamaica unaccompanied to rejoin his mother and fathers’ parents who arrived without them.

For many, adapting to their new country was traumatic. Sonia King came to the UK to join her mother who was working as a nurse in the 1950s.

“It was a culture shock, first of all the weather was not very appealing, I thought it was a horrible place to be a child. My friends were running around in Jamaica and I was held up in what felt like a prison because it had red bricks,” King said.

Desmond arrived when he was 11 years old and did what ‘good migrants’ are told to do. He made friends, got a job and was even briefly married to an English woman.

“First I got a paper round, then I got a job in the market and then I did construction. I paid my taxes and everything”.

Desmond only went back to Jamaica in 2001 to care for his 83 year old mother when his father died. He has since been denied a visa to visit. The 58 year old and his mother felt Britain abandoned by the state. “What they are doing is stupid” said Icyline.

Fury and disappointment towards Britain is omnipresent in Jamaica. On Sunday an Anglican priest in Kingston’s Christ Church based his sermon not on the Book of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but David… Lammy. The Labour MP’s fiery speech was widely shared in Jamaica and heavily quoted to me after morning worship by members of the congregation.

Sonia King, who gave up her British passport when Jamaica became independent as a gesture of pride, said Lammy’s speech made her jump in her house with “excitement”.

At the same time as the Windrush generation’s disenfranchisement, Britain is undertaking a nursing recruitment drive in the Caribbean to help alleviate the one in 10 nurses who left the NHS in England and Wales – but at what cost?

Dr Chris Tufton, Jamaica’s Minister of Health, has warned that foreign recruiters from the UK and US have further underdeveloped Jamaica.

“We have given a lot and have felt we have not been given back a lot in return and a manifestation of that has come out in the Windrush issue,” said Tufton.

At University Hospital of the West Indies, in Kingston, a senior ICU nurse said she planned to migrate.

When she graduated there were over 80 nurses in her cohort but she said: “I only know of four persons left in Jamaica”.

According to another senior nurse in her graduating class there were 54 nurses in 2000 but “if there are 10 of us still left in Jamaica I’ll be surprised”.

Windrush history was repeating itself, she said, following Britain’s announcement of a partnership in which Jamaican nurses would travel to Britain to help alleviate the NHS crisis.

Dr Chris Tufton believes Jamaica can benefit from the deal but most Jamaicans believe Britain views their relationship as a transaction in which Britain takes but doesn’t give.

Clement Vassell asks how it is that Britain has introduced so many restrictions that even affect Jamaicans’ right to visit. He, like everyone else I speak to, almost compares Britain to the one friend you only see when they need something. “They don’t want us, we should cut them off.”

As the 70th anniversary of the Windrush approaches there is a sense of deja vu. Theresa May’s Home Office had tightened immigration rules to supposedly save public services only for a core public sector to aggressively target migrants because the NHS needs them.