26 Oct 2021

Doctor excluded from one-off residence visa says govt change 'makes no sense'

7:52 pm on 26 October 2021

A doctor says leaving the country and flying back in is the only way for her to be eligible for the government's one-off residence visa.

Residence visa application form

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Some overseas medical staff in hospitals and aged-care facilities are among those whose visa of type excludes them being one of next year's 165,000 new residents.

But critical workers who arrive at the border between now and July will be eligible for fast-track permanent settlement, prompting some to consider the unusual option of leaving New Zealand in order to become residents.

A 28-year-old hospital doctor, who asked not to be named, moved from the UK in 2019, working as an emergency department doctor and then changing to a working holiday visa so she had the flexibility to do locum work.

"The Essential Skills [Work] Visa does not allow that flexibility for overseas doctors," she said. "And it's quite a well-trodden path. A lot of my colleagues applied for the Working Holiday Visa because of that flexibility."

Back on a hospital contract, she was going to apply for an essential skills visa - which would have made her eligible for the one-off residence visa - but that did not happen in time. People already working in New Zealand had to fulfil the criteria the day before the policy was announced, at the end of September.

Her only remaining residence option - to fly out, return on a critical healthcare visa and take up a managed isolation space - "makes no sense", she said.

"Kind of the crazy thing is that if I'd decided to leave to go back to the UK within the last two years and apply for a critical purpose visa [to return] like many of my colleagues, I would have been eligible for the visa, but because I decided to stay, I'm not. And so I think the only option is that I have to leave New Zealand basically and come back in on a different visa."

It was annoying, a waste of time and money, and meant a leave of absence from the hospital she now worked at, but other residence avenues were not open, she said.

Although her visa type rules her out, she meets the other criteria for residence. "I've worked here for two years, I've had no holiday despite the visa being called the Working Holiday Visa.

"I just think it's quite unfair. It's all been done haphazardly, without really looking at the technicalities.

"I don't think they intended for it to happen this way but it's just an unintended consequence of not actually looking at which visas people are on, rather than just going through a blanket approach - these people can have the visa, no one else can - and not really considering individual cases either."

The expense and time involved in taking an overseas trip and potentially a managed isolation space would not be easy with her job, she said.

Flying out, not coming back

While she weighed up getting a return flight, others are buying a one-way ticket.

A mental health support worker in the South Island, who also asked to remain anonymous, found his partnership work visa left him out of the residence visa scheme.

He has had interviews with Canadian employers and he is leaving with his wife and two children when a job is finalised.

He had submitted an expression of interest in applying for skilled migrant residence. While government has signalled that the process will reopen next July, it will have been closed for almost two-and-a-half years.

Uncertainty about what the criteria will look like when it restarts was compounded by concerns about the long-standing delays in processing visas.

"Every country needs mental health support workers, they are very much in demand around the globe," he said. "I will definitely leave this country because our future is really uncertain.

"It's going to be two and a half years [that] expressions of interest are not resumed. And then 26 months more to be filed, to be processed, so it's going to be five years. I think being a reliable father or a reliable partner, I can't wait five years to decide my career."

Medical students do not qualify either. One student, who is on clinical placement at Middlemore Hospital and in the country since 2013, said she was heartbroken at being excluded.

She studied health science, majoring in population health and working at Auckland DHB as a junior doctor advisor before starting her degree in medicine and surgery at Auckland university.

Immigration adviser Jack Wu said she had already assisted in more than 100 surgeries, treated 400 patients, and administered more than 1000 Covid-19 swab tests and vaccinations.

Using current visa status as the basis for deciding on the one-off residence criteria was "not logical", as people on many ineligible visa types may have been working in important roles and for a much longer time than those who can apply.

The solution should involve looking at their work in the last three or so years, he said.

"Consider their visa status in the last few years instead of what it was on a certain day when determining how much they have worked and contributed to the country," he said. "Also, any visa with work permission should be included regardless of what the name of the visa is."

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi has been approached for comment.

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