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21 May 2020 20:32

Coronavirus Scotland United Kingdom National Health Service

Government U-turn as Boris Johnson asks for NHS surcharge to be removed for foreign health and care staff

Boris Johnson was forced into an embarrassing U-turn this afternoon after a major Tory rebellion against hiking a £400 fee charged to health and care workers from non-EU countries. Within hours of our story No 10 announced that Mr Johnson had asked the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care to remove NHS and care workers from the NHS surcharge as soon as possible. It is a victory for new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer who spotlighted the burden placed by the charge on low paid hospital porters and care workers in the Commons. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted: "Boris Johnson is right to have U-turned and backed our proposal to remove the NHS charge for health professionals and care workers. Education committee chairman Robert Halfon added: "I hope the Government thinks again on this surcharge, or, at the very least, comes up with a payment scheme to ensure that all those NHS workers who are on low pay have higher wages and a better standard of living." Ex-Conservative Party chairman Lord Patten has told 5Live it was "immoral and monstrous" that foreign NHS workers should be charged for healthcare.

In an unexpected policy switch the government this afternoon exempted overseas NHS staff and care workers from paying a surcharge to use the health service. Boris Johnson's spokesman said the PM had asked the Home Office and Department for Health to exempt NHS and care workers "as soon as possible". He said the Prime Minister had benefited himself from the work of NHS staff from overseas while he had Covid-19 and indicated that it was a decision made by Johnson alone. Only yesterday, the Prime Minister rejected calls to scrap the surcharge for migrant care workers, after opposition parties and the Royal College of Nursing said it may be deterring workers from outside the European Economic Area from choosing to work in the UK. In April it was announced that NHS doctors, nurses and paramedics from overseas whose visas were due to expire before 1 October 2020 would be granted automatic visa extensions free of charge and would be exempt from the Immigration Health Surcharge – a £400 per year contribution towards access to NHS services, which increases to £624 in October.

Care workers were not covered by the IHS exemption and Johnson said the country could not afford to scrap the charge in the current economic climate. He told MPs during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday (20 May): "I do accept and understand the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff and… I've been a personal beneficiary of carers who have come from abroad and, frankly, saved my life. "On the other hand we must look at the realities – this is a great national service, it's a national institution, it needs funding and those contributions actually help us to raise about £900m, and it's very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources." It later transpired that the £900m figure was the total raised between 2015 and 2019, not the yearly figure. "Does the Prime Minister think it's right that care workers coming from abroad and working on our frontline should have to pay a surcharge of hundreds – sometimes thousands of pounds – to use the NHS themselves?" The Prime Minister has rejected pleas from the health and social care sectors to exempt care workers from paying the NHS surcharge. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer led the calls during Prime Minister's questions yesterday, asking whether Boris Johnson believes that care workers coming from overseas and working on the frontline should have to pay the £400 a year to use the NHS.

He warned that the fee will go up to £624 a year from October and, for a care worker on the National Living Wage, this would require working 70 hours to pay it off. The Prime Minister responded: "I have thought a great deal about this, and I do accept and I do understand the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff, and like him i have been the personal beneficiary… carers who have come from abroad and saved my life. Keir Starmer said he was "disappointed" by Johnson's response and asked him to reconsider, stating that The Doctors Association and a number of medical groups believe the refusal to scrap the surcharge for NHS and care workers is a "gross insult" to those serving the country at its time of "greatest need". Amid the coronavirus crisis, doctors, nurses and paramedics have been granted a one-year exemption from the charge, but the foreign secretary Dominic Raab said on Monday that "there's no current plans" to extend this benefit to care workers. BORIS Johnson's swift U-turn to scrap the surcharge, levied on overseas health and care staff to help pay for the NHS, has been hailed a "victory for common decency" by Labour while the SNP demanded its abolition for all migrant workers.

A No 10 spokesman said Mr Johnson had been "thinking about this a great deal" and as a "personal beneficiary of carers from abroad" he understood the difficulties faced by NHS staff. Last night, Sir Keir said: "Boris Johnson is right to have U-turned and backed our proposal to remove the NHS charge for health professionals and care workers. He added: "Now we need the Tory Government to scrap the NHS surcharge altogether, build a fairer immigration system, and show a meaningful commitment to NHS and care workers; including by paying them all at least the Real Living Wage."