‘They have traumatised our lives’: the retired NHS nurse too scared to visit family in Britain

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A retired nurse in Jamaica who was charged more than £4,000 for cancer tests has said she is too afraid to visit her family in Britain after NHS debt collectors warned her she could be detained by immigration officials.

Pauline Pennant, 70, who retired to Jamaica in 1993 after 30 years working mainly in London hospitals, fell seriously ill on a visit to the UK three years ago when she was diagnosed with secondary bone cancer.

For Pennant, the 70th anniversary of the MV Empire Windrush’s first arrival at Tilbury docks is overshadowed by the fear of being detained if she returns to Britain.

The ordeal has left her too afraid to visit her seriously ill brother at University Hospital Lewisham or attend her granddaughter’s graduation at Birmingham University next month.

She was ordered to pay £4,388 for tests at Croydon University hospital after a law change three months earlier that requires overseas visitors to pay for most NHS healthcare, even if, like Pennant, they are British citizens who still pay UK taxes.

The former nurse has felt forced to pay £50 a month from her UK pension to the bill after she was warned by the debt collection agency CCCI Credit Management, acting for the hospital, in October last year that she could be detained by the UK Border Agency unless she paid the total sum within 60 days.

The letter, which also said the Home Office would be informed if the amount remained unpaid, was sent to her home in the Jamaican port town of Ocho Rios and came despite repeated unanswered pleas to the hospital to resolve her situation, Pennant said.

The saga has cast a huge shadow over Pennant’s once-cherished memories of the country where her parents arrived in the early 1950s as part of the first wave of Windrush generation migrants from the Caribbean.

“I’ve never, ever thought of the UK as somewhere I’d have negative feelings about. I’ve never felt like that until now. The letter I got [from the debt collectors] said they would stop me – I don’t know if they’ve put a stoppage on me coming back or not [but] I don’t want to be traumatised over that. I don’t need that at this point in my life,” she said, adding that she wanted a letter of assurance from the Home Office that she will not be detained if she returns to Britain.

Who was onboard the Windrush?

More than half of the passengers on the Empire Windrush had left homes in Jamaica. According to the official passenger list – held by the National Archives – 541 people gave their last country of residence as Jamaica, out of a total 1,027 onboard.

Bermuda was the last country of residence of 139 passengers, while Trinidad was listed for 74 people. Sixty-six passengers came from Mexico, but their nationality was recorded as Polish.

A further 44 passengers were from British Guiana (now Guyana) on the northern coast of South America. England was listed as the last country of residence for 119 people – 12% of the total onboard.

Fifteen people came from other parts of the UK: 10 from Scotland, four from Wales and one from Northern Ireland.

Among the passengers were small numbers from countries as far apart as Burma (five people), New Zealand (two), Norway (one) and Uganda (one). A couple of stowaways were also mentioned on the passenger list: a 39-year-old dressmaker from Jamaica and a 30-year-old from Trinidad.

Photograph: PA
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The health and social care secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said in a letter to Pennant’s MP, Steve Reed, this week that he “fully sympathised” with her case but that she was liable to pay because she was not currently resident in the UK.

Pennant is furious that retirees were never told about the rule change. “If I knew this was going to happen I would have been prepared with insurance,” she said.

She also wants to know where her UK tax is going if not to the NHS. “They have traumatised our lives. They are just playing games with our emotions and I’m sick of it. They don’t care about people. They disregard us and think we’re trash,” she said.

Pennant has been overwhelmed by the number of people who have offered to help pay her £4,388 bill since the Guardian published her story on 23 May but is determined to fight to change the “hostile environment” approach.

“It’s not about money. I want attitudes to change, I want policies to change,” she said. “I want them to treat us like normal people who have contributed, we’ve paid our tax – we’re still paying tax – we’re now at a stage where we should be reaping the benefits. But with all this I’m now feeling that my father’s generation, and now us by extension, are reaping the bitter end of the stick.”

Melvin Collins, 72, a retired Midlands youth worker who has been stranded in Jamaica since visiting the island three years ago, said he hoped Britain’s Caribbean community would boycott the government’s annual Windrush Day celebration announced this week by the communities minister, Nick Bourne, after months of damning revelations.

He said any celebration involving the prime minister or the Home Office would be a “charade” and that communities should organise their own commemorative events. “The black community in the UK must reject this notion of a celebration event being organised by this government. Theresa May probably did more to harm [the Windrush generation] than anyone else,” he said.

Collins was contacted by the government’s hastily established Windrush taskforce within days of a Guardian article reporting how he was left destitute in Jamaica after his “indefinite leave to remain” passport was wrongly taken by an immigration officer at Gatwick airport.

The former Walsall council worker has relied on handouts from family and friends since his UK pension was stopped when he could not answer letters sent to his home in the Midlands.

Collins is due within days to receive a new passport allowing him indefinite leave to remain in the UK and once again see his children and brother. After three years of frustrated attempts to resolve his crisis, the speedy resolution brings a bittersweet feeling.

“I have to get home. I’m desperate,” he said from his 92-year-old aunt Lena’s flat, where he has been staying on the outskirts of Montego Bay. “I’m hurt. I’m 72 bloody years of age, I’ve lost three good years of my life not being able to move. I don’t trust them and I’ll never trust them again.”

Meanwhile the government has announced that is setting up a Windrush commemoration committee to “consider how best to create a permanent tribute to the Windrush generation and their descendants”. The body will be chaired by Lady Floella Benjamin.

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