No country for EU citizens

22. 8. 2019 / Tomasz Oryński

If you are a regular Britské Listy reader, you might have noticed that over last year my weekly column on Poland has become quite irregular and erratic. This is a story about what happened in my life and how I became entangled in the absurdities of British health and welfare system.


The beginnings

On 27 June 2018 I was assaulted by a co-worker at work (apart from writing and translating, I drive trucks on a part time casual basis for a small Scottish haulage company). He was behaving in an aggressive manner before, and I had complained about it to the management on several occasions, but they were just brushing it off saying that “he is just an idiot with a large mouth” and that I should ignore him.

The problem was though, that while he was behaving aggressively towards everyone, I got special treatment for being Polish.

And when he saw that my complaints lead to nothing, he felt even more encouraged and started to use openly racist language and began to make open threats. I told the company that unless they did something about it, I would take the case further. 
 


Unfortunately, before I had a chance to do so, he charged at me with a huge bit of wood, aiming at my head. Initially I did not feel anything, so I managed to disarm and restrain him until help arrived.

On that day I was feeling fine and went home knowing very little how this event will change my life over next year. As it turned out, it set me on the collision course with British health service, legal world and welfare institutions.

Photo: A picture of the assault weapon:  

Chapter one: the Scottish Health Service

It was only the next day, when I felt the consequences of that blow. I had a blackout when driving and nearly went off the road. I called my boss who came and drove me to the hospital near my home. I was examined there, and found to suffer from concussion and advised to go to a bigger hospital, as the doctor thought that I should get an MRI scan and be thoughtfully examined. I was asked if I was able to organize my own transport, or if I wanted them to call me a taxi. I felt terrible and did not want to travel on my own, so I called a friend who came to pick me up and accompanied me for the rest of the day.

In the bigger hospital after a short wait I was given a brief examination (not much more than being asked to follow doctor's finger with my eyes and to stand on one leg) and it was confirmed that I have concussion. I was then sent home and advised to see my GP. Of course they advised me to take the world-famous British panacea: Paracetamol. The doctor told me that I should be OK in a couple of weeks.

Alas, over next couple of weeks my condition only got worse.
Despite being prescribed strong painkillers and anti-nausea pills, I was unable to do pretty much anything and when I try to remember the period of the next few weeks, it is just one blurred vision of lying on the sofa and being barely able to move. That worried my doctor and I was advised to go to the hospital again and demand an MRI scan, as something obviously was not right. But also on this occasion I was sent home after just a brief examination.

Luckily, after a couple of months my condition improved enough to be able to get back behind the wheel.
I even managed to go for a long planned road trip to Tuscany in August, after which I came back to work. Unfortunately soon I developed terrible insomnia, I also started to have balance issues and terrible migraines. My GP immediately banned me from driving altogether – just about time, as over next weeks I again became unable to do much apart from lying on the sofa – imagine the worst hangover you had in your life that lasts for weeks without a break and you'll have a faint idea how my life looked back then.

British rules do not allow a family doctor to recommend someone for an MRI scan, so some time earlier
he referred me to a neurologist. But as the waiting time was initially estimated to be in the range of 12 to 15 weeks, my doctor said I should not be waiting and advised me to go privately. Since my finances were already too tight to be able to afford private treatment in Scotland, I decided to fly to Poland, where I had my MRI scan and had a specialist consultation. My scan was showing something, but so far it was inconclusive, as I never had any scan after being injured, they had nothing to compare it to. I was put on some specialist medication and told to do another scan in 3 to 6 months.

Back in Britain my wait for the neurologist turned to be longer than expected, and while I was referred in November, I only managed to see the specialist on 12 July – more than a year after my initial injury. The whole visit was just a waste of time. The doctor's first question, after looking into my files, was “so you have a concussion, what do you want from me?”

I pulled out my MRI scan from Poland and while she was hopelessly trying to see anything in the files that were opening on her computer in a size similar to that of a postal stamp, I tried to tell her what medication was prescribed to me in Poland and about that my doctor in Poland wanted me to get another scan soon. She interrupted me to say “oh, this is not how it works in this country”. I was pretty annoyed already, so my answer was “so I've noticed”.

She instantly stopped looking into her computer screen and angrily asked me what I meant by that. I told her that “apparently, if one wants to have a proper medical help, one has to travel abroad”. That made her very angry, but she probably realised that I am in fact right, so she said “OK, OK, I will give you that MRI of yours”. She clicked few things on her computer, murmuring to herself “and another visit in three months” then simply left the room without a single word to me.

I sat there for a while, confused, unsure if she is to come back to me or not, as I had a lot of questions about my medication, but it came clear to me that she was not coming back, so I gathered my belongings and left. I saw her on the corridor, chatting with some nurse, so I approached her, hoping to get some answers, but she just waved her hand at me saying “I see you in three months, go now”.

Currently I am still off work.
My therapy has been developed by my doctor friend in Poland – he is a psychiatrist, who in consultation with neurologist, came with a new medication regime for me, that was then approved by my Scottish GP. I am taking those new meds for a few weeks now, and while they help me a lot with my insomnia and headaches, they generate strong side effects. I am told I simply have to stay on them for a month or so and those should slowly wear off, and then maybe I will be able to get back to work.

Since experiencing the quality of the NHS myself, I can't help but laugh when I hear Britons saying that NHS is a superior health system, and the whole Europe is envious of it… Because my case seems to fill the pattern described by many of my European friends – Poles, Czechs, Italians etc.: you better get your help somewhere else, as all you can hope here is some recommendation for Paracetamol.


Chapter two: Legal and financial issues

If instead of restraining my attacker, I smashed his face – as I was encouraged to do by witnesses of our fight, who all cheered for me because he wasn't the most liked person around – I would now have a luxury of Legal Aid, as does my attacker, who initially pledged guilty, but then, as a result of advice from his lawyer, changed his pledge, so the criminal case is still on the table.

Unfortunately, such a luxury is available only to alleged criminals. The victims of crime have to face
dire consequences on their own. All my friends were trying to get me some help, with some initial successes: the editor Jan Čulík for example managed to get the attention of a Scottish celebrity human rights lawyer, who deals with the matters of hate crime and discrimination. He publicly expressed his will to help – but it soon emerged that I am left to myself. He never answered my e-mails and it was made it clear to me, that there is no need for me to call his office, as he is a very busy man.

Meanwhile my employer officially denies any knowledge of the attacker behaving inappropriately before and claims that I never reported anything, which makes it difficult for me to get compensation as I indeed have nothing in writing (my fault – I only complained verbally, as in such a small company pretty much everything happens in an informal way and I naively thought we are friends).

Witnesses could help, but apart from one of the other part time drivers who rushed to my rescue on the day of the assault, everyone suddenly says that “they did really see anything” or that “they don't want any trouble”. And so, as it is now, I only have one witness and have to work with a regular injury compensation lawyer who took on  my case on the “no-win, no fee” basis.


So far there is no sight on any compensation coming – either my claim against the company, or from the government's victims of the crime compensation fund. Luckily I had some cash put aside – I was saving to buy a camper – as otherwise I would be already in deep financial trouble: in Britain most of the workers unable to work due to a health issue get only Statutory Sick Pay of £94.25, and even if I managed to get my government-funded crime compensation approved, it does not cover first 28 weeks of lost income.

But as you can guess, my savings were not a bottomless money pot, so the things became a bit tough. My
tax return for the year 2017/2018 shows that my average weekly income from that driving job only was £430. Multiply this by 30 weeks I've been off work so far, and you will realise that I suffered a financial blow of over £10 000 before we even consider all the translation jobs or writing I could do if I wasn't unable to do so due to my condition. To top it all, your SSP (those 94 pounds per week) can be paid only for 28 weeks, so with the beginning of this month I received the letter from my company HQ saying that they woluld no longer pay it, and that I was advised to apply for Universal Credit – the infamous Tory invention that is said to be designed in such a way that if it doesn't discourage people from claiming welfare, at least it humiliates and annoys them.

Chapter three: at the mercy of British welfare system



After watching “I, Daniel Blake”, a horrifying movie about how inhumane the British welfare system is, I was expected my encounter with the authorities to be a  tragedy. To my surprise, it turned out to be more like a farce.


Filling countless forms online

First you are facing the on-line computer system, that seems to be designed to waste as much of your time as possible. You are  spending a lot of time painstakingly filling online forms and digging through your archives hoping that you haven't deleted your airplane booking confirmation e-mails from last year's holidays, or that you haven't thrown away some minor documents from 10 years ago.

You keep wondering why the government's system cannot be designed in such a way that it would import information from another government database – such as the tax office, or the borders agency. But then you are asked to log in again, and the whole show starts almost from scratch – and you are sure that the system is not even able to refer to itself. Because how else would one explain the situation where at the top of the screen the system says “Welcome back, Tomasz Oryński” and just a few lines below asks you to input your name and surname again?

Finally I managed to tick all the boxes, and had only one position
left on my “to-do list”: to provide a note from my doctor. The only option is to provide the original – either by post or in person. Since I might need the original for my compensation claim, I  decided to visit a Job Centre –it  is within a walking distance from my home. I was met there with a  surprised question “why haven't I booked an appointment?”. The system said nothing about that, but a nice lady booked me swiftly for a visit there  a few days later.

First appointment

I turned up on time, and was immediately invited to sit at a desk. The Job Centre lady was very friendly and was wading swiftly through all the questions that her computer told her to ask me. Most of the issues had alredy been  covered in my online forms. I had to provide some documents that she would copy and then scan them later (apparently, the system does not allow for having them scanned directly into the electronic form).

I was informed that I would have my decision around 9th of September and then I would be likely to receive my payments on 14th, providing that the system was satisfied that I was legally in the UK. To do so, I would have to attend another meeting, and my partner would also  have to come for her own meeting as well. I asked why my partner needed to come and prove she had the right to stay in the UK, if it was me, not her, who was trying to get some help, and what good it would make for her to skip work in order to attend the meeting. Apparently I was not the first one who asked this question, and there was no good answer to it, as the lady behind the desk just smiled sadly at me and said “I know, right?”. The only way for my partner to be able to come without taking a day off at work was Friday afternoon, and the first available slot was not until a week later. I was advised that this would delay my application, and, eventually, my payment for another week.

Mind you, I have not had ANY income since my Statutory Sick Pay ended on 2
nd of August, and they estimate my payments to reach me on 21st of September. What if I had no working partner, what if I wasn't able to wade through all those formalities due to poor health, what if I wasn't computer literate - would I be simply left to starve?

Second appointment

The second appointment required much more detailed preparation. The computer system kindly provided me with the list of all documents I needed to bring with me:



And yes, I was supposed to bring them all. I asked the lady, when she said I would need to prove my income by bringing my payslips and bank statements. She was pretty sure it was not the case of “this or that”, it had to be “this AND that”. It took me a good part of the day to prepare my file – I had to dig for some 10 years-old certificates and go to my work's office to get most of my recent payslips that were waiting there for me.

My file turned out to be pretty thick, I weighed it out of curiosity – it came up to 325 grams of paper, and I didn't  even manage to get all the documents required (how on earth is one to get a copy of the electoral register?).



My second meeting lasted over 80 minutes. It was a sustained bombardment of questions – some about the documents I had already provided, some about those that I brought with me on the day, and some completely unrelated. I was asked for example to give the exact amount of money that I brought with myself when I first came to Britain all those years ago (luckily I remember that it was 60 pounds). I was asked about the exact day I arrived in Britain to settle permanently (I hope I remembered well that it was the first of July). I was asked if I brought any of my pets with me (yes, a few years later I brought a cat that belonged to my then-partner). I was asked if I left any pets behind in Poland (yes, a turtle that I got when I was 10 still lives happily under the loving care of my mum).

I also asked one question: why all those question
s? I was an EU citizen, so I had the right to work here and I had been paying taxes here for nearly 15 years, surely if I was here illegally someone would have noticed by now?

The lady answered that while this was obvious in my case, it might not be obvious in the cases of others. Well, I am then happy to know that my tax money is being well spent on a government official grilling me for over an hour on such important things like the fate of my childhood pet to establish "the obvious fact". And apparently this is not only about EU citizens, I have heard of some British citizen were put through the same ordeal simply because they happened to live abroad for few years…

They say that the fate of EU citizens in the UK is to get worse after Brexit. I hardly can imagine how the system can be less friendly towards us, unless Boris Johnson's government is to approve hounding us with Dobermann dogs or publicly stoning people for being  citizens of the EU. My partner has already convinced me that with all Brexit related issues it might be about time to leave the British Isles, now we simply cannot wait to move somewhere else. If we still had our savings, we would probably live in another EU country already, but as, thanks to no fault on our side at all, all we have now is a huge credit card bill and a heavily overdrawn bank account, and so at the moment we cannot really afford to move abroad in search of a new life. But it soon might turn out that we might be without a home in Scotland anyway…

Chapter four: Choose what you need more: money to buy food or roof over your head

As I was writing those words, I received a phone call from my landlord who, after some muddled explanation which didn't really shed any light on her reasons, kindly asked if we can simply drop our benefit claim, as otherwise she would be forced to terminate our tenancy. Apparently, despite being valued tenants, who were never late when paying the rent and who keep the flat nice and tidy, on occasion doing even some minor improvements, the moment we apply for benefits, we would need to leave, as otherwise the landlord would “lose control on her flat”.

I researched this topic, but failed to get any definitive answers on why this could be. Sadly, they have right to get rid of us within a three month's notice, and so, as per yesterday, we've been handed one.

(Since the publication of this  piece earlier on 22nd August, three minor adjustments have been made to the text of the article on the request of its author.)

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