Emma Brooksbank: Time to calm Brexit fears over EU health insurance

Health insurance is now tied up in Brexit talks.
Health insurance is now tied up in Brexit talks.
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AS thousands of applications for permanent residence fail, fear of removal among EU students is mounting.

Further unnecessary panic was caused by allegations that the Government was going to use its powers under Comprehensive Sickness Insurance rules to reject residence applications that would otherwise have been successful. There was talk of students being refused re-entry into the country. Some were told by the Home Office that they had to leave, and one client of mine was even worried she could face prison.

The issue is Comprehensive Sickness Insurance (CSI) and it is time the Government set the record straight. Status quo of fear, confusion and insecurity is wholly unacceptable.

Almost all EU students in the UK have their own resources and do not rely on the benefit system. They also don’t work while they study. But although they are perfectly within their rights to live and study here, they are also required to take out CSI. Unfortunately, the vast majority do not, simply because they are entirely unaware of the rules. Sadly, having failed to do so is what catches them out when they later decide to seek permanent residence – sometimes after years or decades of UK residency.

The status of EU citizens living in the UK has not changed since the EU referendum. EU and European Economic Area students must have Comprehensive Sickness Insurance in place from the day they arrive and for as long as they remain a student or a self-sufficient person. That applies to their EEA spouses and civil partners too.

The Home Office has finally stated that holding CSI is a “technicality” and that students will not be removed from the UK if they do not hold it. This may help students who are only planning to stay for a short time and who then intend to leave the UK. It does not, however, help students who would like to stay in the UK in the long term and who may already have been here for many years.

For students who would like to make the UK their home, any time spent in the UK as a student without CSI will not be counted or considered to have been a period of residence which meets the requirements of the rules for EU and EEA nationals. They will not therefore be able to use this time towards their permanent residence. Is this fair? I’d say ‘no’.

About 30 per cent of the permanent residency applications currently being made are failing as people discover that they don’t qualify because they didn’t have the required health insurance in place. As a result, their time spent in the country as a student is essentially void. This is a huge shame as that time has been spent in education and the country desperately needs qualified employees in a whole range of areas.

The issue stems from the anomalous healthcare system we have in the UK, namely that there is a free NHS system that does not require insurance. In most other European countries, health insurance is required, but not here. Because it is unusual for anyone in the UK to hold health insurance, few European nationals are informed that they, in fact, do require health insurance in order to qualify for residence later on.

Information from universities is scarce and, sometimes, inaccurate. Many students claim to never have been made aware of the requirement for them to take out health insurance – not even ones that have arrived in the past six months.

For the avoidance of doubt, to stem the growing panic, and while we wait for the Government to make changes that mean students who didn’t have health insurance can still qualify for permanent residence, here are the facts about Comprehensive Sickness Insurance: No student who is an EU citizen will be deported or denied entry into the UK simply because they don’t have health insurance in place. There will be no mass expulsion of EU students or EU citizens from the United Kingdom. No EU student will be criminalised or face a fine or conviction for failing to hold CSI.

It seems unreasonable and against the interests of the UK that students and graduates will have to start counting their five-year qualifying period from the day they began working, rather than from the day they arrived. Chances are that some will just leave and go elsewhere that offers them the security of permanence.

Although those who failed to take out health insurance when they arrived should seek legal advice about their position, they should not lie awake worried that they could be removed from the United Kingdom.

Emma Brooksbank is a partner and head of immigration at Leeds law firm Simpson Millar.