‘Elizabeth’, her sick husband, and the knife

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is appointing a new NHS director of costs. His job, says Mr Hunt, will be  to help the health service ‘get better’ at charging immigrants who are already in Britain, but not eligible for free treatment on the NHS. The coalition’s position is that short term immigrant and foreign visitors should pay more than £500m a year towards the cost of their NHS care.

Let’s look at the account of one woman who came to our London food bank a few days ago, and who happens to be making an immigration application.  ‘Elizabeth’ (not her real name)  came to the UK from Nigeria with her husband in 2010, and she is the quietest, saddest-looking woman I’ve seen for a long time. She brought her baby boy of seven months, who was fast asleep.

In a voice that’s no more than a whisper, she slowly, painfully, tells me her story.  I desperately hope that this is the worst account from a food bank client that I ever have to pass on.

Both Elizabeth and her husband have been renewing their visas while they try to negotiate the immigration application process. They also have two older children  – a girl of eight and a son of five. Elizabeth says: ‘My husband is in hospital. He has depression and he’s had it since 2010. He was working for 20 hours a week, and was also a student. But the rules changed and he wasn’t allowed to work. He was studying to be an ACCA (chartered accountant), and he has passed the first stage. But he has been in hospital now for over a month.’

How do they all survive, now that he is unable to work? ‘My maternity pay is the only money coming in. I get £278 every fortnight, from my job as a support worker for the elderly. A social worker is getting involved now, and is looking at whether there will be any financial help with regard to the rent.’

Why has a social worker suddenly intervened? Elizabeth tells me of the terrible circumstances which led to her husband being taken into a mental health unit as an in-patient recently: ‘He tried to commit suicide. I called the ambulance. My eight year old daughter got me a knife and I cut the rope.’ This poor woman’s daughter saw everything. By the time she’d reached the end of the account she had broken down and was in tears.

The stress this woman is going through, along with three small children, is horrific. Elizabeth’s GP was able to ease things a little by giving her a voucher for the food bank. We were then able to give her an emergency supply of food, including some nappies. She stayed with us for quite a while that afternoon, and I hope that talking to us about this almost unimaginable trauma, helped her – even a little. At least  – small comfort – she was able to feed herself and her two older children that weekend. She is still breast-feeding her baby.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Elizabeth and her family this week. Let’s hope that he responds well to the treatment he’s receiving. I’m not completely sure whether she and her husband have ‘temporary migrant’ status – It looks as if they do. What is a ‘health tourist’? Is Elizabeth’s husband one of those? If these new proposals supported by Jeremy Hunt do make their way into law – the Immigration Bill was passed yesterday by 303 votes to 18 – at what point during his recovery would some NHS doctor have to present Elizabeth’s husband with the bill for his treatment?