'I felt the government was coming after my colleagues': Syrian NHS cleaner on why he spoke out against 'unjust' policy for migrant staff

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  • May 24, 2020
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“My colleagues were talking about it and I could see the bewilderment on their faces,” Hassan Akkad, an NHS cleaner, says. “Because how could you justify it?”

The Syrian national found out about a plan to exclude migrant cleaners, porters and social care workers who die in the coronavirus pandemic – which has now been pulled after public outcry – while walking to work at a London hospital.

“It felt very personal because those are the people I work alongside,” he tells The Independent. “I was very upset because it felt like the government was coming after my colleagues.”

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After Hassan – a 32-year-old refugee who came to the UK from Syria several years ago – spent the morning cleaning Covid-19 wards and thinking about this policy, he decided to take action.

He went to his car and recorded a message to the prime minister urging him to rethink the plan – a message which has been watched millions of times on Twitter.

“Today, I felt betrayed and stabbed in the back,” he says in the video. “I felt shocked that your government decided to exclude myself and my colleagues … from the bereavement scheme.”

The Home Office initially said they would offer families of foreign-national doctors and nurses who die indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but not those of support staff and care workers.

However, the government did a U-turn earlier this week following criticism.

“Cleaners, porters, social care workers from migrant backgrounds … are facing the same risks everyone else if facing in the NHS,” Hassan, who has worked as a cleaner for two months, says.

“I didn’t understand where the decision to exclude them came from.”

He added: “It was an unjust decision. I didn’t expect the video would go viral but I had to do my part after observing everything around me for the past 52 days.

“I had to speak out.”

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Hassan, a documentary filmmaker, joined his local NHS hospital as a cleaner this year as he wanted to help out during the coronavirus pandemic.

He was been cleaning coronavirus wards since, working with many colleagues from migrant backgrounds.

Since his video gained traction, the government has not only extended support to more migrant NHS staff in its bereavement scheme, but also backtracked on another policy.

The prime minister said earlier this week an NHS fee for migrant health and care social workers would be dropped amid pressure to get rid of the £624-a-year charge.

“The mood is shifting and sadly it has taken us a pandemic to realise the importance and value migrants bring to their host community,” Hassan tells The Independent.

The 32-year-old thanks the public in another video after hearing the government had changed who qualifies for the bereavement scheme, and says the positive response means a lot to him.

“I was still feeling very low when I put the first video up,” he says. “When I read the piece about excluding us, I felt betrayed and offended. When I saw the public reaction I thought there is still hope.”

He added: “The people of our country are basically on our side. If you have the public support, you’re good.”

Announcing the bereavement scheme would include more NHS workers, Priti Patel said: “Every death in this crisis is a tragedy, and sadly some NHS support staff and social care workers have made the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of saving the lives of others.”

The home secretary said the offer of indefinite leave to remain for the families of these workers who die as a result of contracting coronavirus would be effective immediately. “We want to ensure families have the support they need,” she added.