American expats in the U.K. fear coronavirus could leave them in limbo
By Haley Ott
/ CBS News
London — As American citizens traveling abroad are urged to return to the United States because of the coronavirus pandemic, many who live in the U.K. fear they could soon find themselves stuck in limbo: Ineligible for support from the British government if they lose their jobs, they also have no homes — or health insurance — to go back to in the U.S.
Approximately 174,000 Americans live in the United Kingdom, many of whom don't qualify for government support under the terms of their visas.
Rachel George, an American who works for a London-based research company, told CBS News she'd like to see leaders on either side of the Atlantic at least acknowledge the uncertainty facing expats like her.
"As someone who's residing outside of their home country, you really start to feel a bit of confusion and anxiety around being able to forward-plan on different contingencies, about how it might affect your family life, how it might affect your professional options, your health care rights, these sorts of things," she said.
Many Americans who move to the U.K. come on work or spousal visas. Both require people to earn a certain amount of money — either as individuals or couples — to qualify. A person has to live in the U.K. for five years before they can access unemployment benefits from the British government, meaning many expats would be left without support if they lose their jobs.
That's a serious concern as measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus force countless businesses to close. The unemployment rate in the U.K. is predicted to rise as a result of the pandemic from about 4% to 6%, according to research company Capital Economics.
If an American expat on a work visa loses their job before they've been in the U.K. for five years, they're required to leave the country.
Britain's Home Office told CBS News it was, "taking a compassionate and pragmatic approach to an unprecedented situation, with a dedicated help center established for those who need assistance."
The U.K. government has said short extensions will be granted for people whose visas have expired but who can't get onto one of the extremely limited flights to their home countries. They've also changed rules to make it possible to renew certain visas from within the U.K.
But that hasn't eased the anxiety expats are feeling.
"I don't have anything there to go back to"
Brooke Stokes moved to Britain in October after marrying a British man she met on vacation. She works as a care provider, helping elderly people who need assistance in their homes.
Thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, she's been doing 16 hour shifts, covering staffing shortfalls as her colleagues are forced to self-isolate. She's worried her husband could be laid off, which would make it impossible for them to pay their bills, let alone save for her next visa renewal.
"If we're not meeting the income requirement or able to afford the visa, I obviously have no savings to get things in place (in the U.S.), like health insurance, housing," Stokes told CBS News. "It is very, very concerning right now."
She plans to continue working as much as she can, until the government guidance changes, or her situation does.
"It's not really home," Stokes says, contemplating a possible forced return to the United States. "I don't have anything there to go back to."
First published on March 26, 2020 / 8:47 AM
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Haley Ott is the digital reporter/producer at CBS News in London.