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UK grants Syria refugee’s family right to remain if he dies of coronavirus

Award winning film maker Hassan Akkad poses in PPE gear after he began work as a cleaner in East London at Whipps Cross hospital [Hassan Akkad/Instagram]
Award winning film maker Hassan Akkad poses in PPE gear after he began work as a cleaner in East London at Whipps Cross hospital, 20 May 2020 [Hassan Akkad/Instagram]

A Syrian refugee working as a hospital cleaner in London has won the right for his family to remain indefinitely in the United Kingdom if he dies in the frontline fighting the coronavirus pandemic, after the government reversed a landmark decision to exclude low-wage foreign workers from a bereavement scheme.

Hassan Akkad, a refugee who fled the conflict in Syria and has been living in the UK for four years, released a video on Twitter yesterday urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to halt the ruling and support those risking their lives on the front line in hospitals.

“I felt betrayed, stabbed in the back. I felt shocked to find out that you’ve decided, your government decided, to exclude myself and my colleagues who work as cleaners and porters and social care workers, who are all on minimum wage, you’ve decided to exclude us from the bereavement scheme.” Akkad questioned the government’s motives and treatment of the low-wage foreign workers, asking: “So if I die fighting coronavirus my partner isn’t allowed an indefinite leave to remain. This is your way of saying thank you to us?”

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Akkad, who took on the cleaning job at Whipps Cross Hospital in March to help combat the pandemic and serve the country, also appealed to a “different Boris” that he said he saw after the prime minister recovered from the coronavirus himself last month.

The bereavement scheme announced by the government last week offered security to relatives of foreign NHS staff members but excluded low-wage workers such as cleaners, porters and social care workers. It caused outrage with numerous calls for all key workers to be included.

Home Secretary Priti Patel reversed the policy only hours after Akkad’s video was published, applying the scheme to all foreign staff within the NHS. “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,” she said yesterday. “Today we are extending the scheme to NHS support staff and social care workers.”

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Choose Love, the world’s first online store that sells products to fund aid to refugees, praised the decision and Akkad’s role in it, stating in an Instagram post today: “This is what a hero looks like. From being forced to flee Syria, to winning a BAFTA, to stepping up to help his local hospital during this pandemic – Hassan has had a remarkable journey. And he keeps on going…thank you for showing us the incredible difference one person can make.”

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