Comments by Sanwar Ali:
In yet another u-turn the Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 21 May 2020 has accepted that NHS workers and care workers will not have to pay the immigration health surcharge. It seems that with the Government and also much of the time with the UK visas and Immigration Department at the Home Office, if you want them to change their mind then make sure that you give them plenty of bad publicity.
So if other groups of migrants do not want to pay the immigration health surcharge it may be worth contacting your local MP, and running campaigns for a change in the law. Surely, it must follow that it is also unfair for other migrants, the bulk of whom will be taxed in the UK to pay for the NHS anyway, to also pay the immigration health surcharge.
Amid a backlash from top Conservatives, the public, the Labour Party, senior health officials and immigrant advocates, Boris Johnson has bowed to pressure to scrap the immigration health surcharge for migrant NHS workers. Johnson had initially stood firm on the controversial fee, claiming it was ‘right’ for migrant health workers to pay to use the NHS.
Just 24 hours after saying there were no plans to exempt migrant NHS and social workers, currently serving on the frontline in the battle against coronavirus, from the £400 annual fee, set to rise to £624 in October, the UK Prime Minister has reversed his stance. The fee is currently payable by migrants entering the UK from outside the European Economic Area.
According to the Prime Minister’s spokesman, Johnson instructed UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel and Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to remove health and care workers from the surcharge ‘as soon as possible.’ Mr Johnson’s decision came ahead of the weekly applause for keyworkers on 21 May.
Johnson a personal beneficiary of migrant health workers
Johnson, who was a beneficiary of healthcare administered by migrant NHS workers when contracting coronavirus and admitted to hospital and later intensive care, said: “I have been thinking about this a great deal, and as a personal beneficiary of carers from abroad, I understand the difficulties faced by NHS staff.”
The Prime Minister has widely acknowledged that he owes his life to migrant NHS workers, but initially argued that the £900 million generated by the immigration health surcharge was crucial to NHS funding.
However, now Mr Johnson has changed his mind, an official statement from Downing Street has said that the government is now reviewing ways to bring the change into effect, with further details set to be announced in the coming weeks.
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said: “As the PM expressed in the House of Commons, he has put a lot of thought into this. He has personally benefitted from the care of NHS staff from abroad and understands the difficulties faced by our amazing health workers.”
“The purpose of the NHS surcharge is to benefit the NHS, help to care for the sick and save lives. NHS and care workers from abroad who are granted visas are doing this already by the fantastic contribution which they make,” the spokesperson added.
The government’s U-turn means that all NHS workers, including health professionals, cleaners and porters, plus independent health and social care workers, will be exempt from charges to use the health service.
During Prime Minister’s Questions on 20 May, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer quizzed Boris Johnson on the morality of the surcharge.
He asked the Prime Minister whether he ‘thought it was right that care workers coming from abroad and working on the frontline of the UK’s health service should have to pay a surcharge of hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds, to use the NHS themselves.’
At the time, prior to Johnson reversing his decision, the Prime Minister responded to Sir Keir saying: “I do accept and understand the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff and, like him, I've been a personal beneficiary of carers who have come from abroad and, frankly, saved my life. So, with great respect to the point he makes, I do think that keeping the surcharge is the way forward.”
Johnson’s initial response was slammed by MPs, including senior Conservative Party ministers who supported Labour’s demands that the ‘immoral’ fees be scrapped immediately by the government.
Sir Roger Gale, the former Conservative Party vice-chairman, warned that “not waiving the fee would rightly be perceived as mean-spirited, doctrinaire and petty.”
Following the government’s reversal, Gale said the decision was ‘politically courageous and sensible’ and that ‘revisiting a position to put something right that was wrong is admirable.’
“It is a humane and a generous decision, and one that will enable all of those out on the doorsteps this evening to clap and cheer with even greater enthusiasm than before,” Gale added.
Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, William Cragg, welcomed the decision saying: “I’m very grateful to Boris Johnson who has shown true leadership, listened and reflected.”
The Committee, which led the Tory rebellion on the issue, along with several prominent Tory MPs warned the government that they would support a Labour move to end the surcharge for migrant health and care workers in June.
Former Tory Party chairman, Lord Patten, indicated that he would fight any move to keep the surcharge in the House of Lords, and slammed Johnson for his ‘appalling’ and ‘immoral’ stance.
Victory for common decency
The government U-turn has been described as a ‘victory for common decency’ by Sir Keir. He said: “We cannot clap our carers one day and then charge them to use our NHS the next.”
In the UK Budget, unveiled in March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the immigration health surcharge would increase from £400 to £624 for adults and £400 to £470 for children.
As of 1 January, 2021 – the day the Brexit transitional period is set to end – all migrants coming to the UK will be subject to the immigration health surcharge on top of UK visa fees. It remains to be seen whether the current exemption for NHS workers and independent healthcare professionals will remain in place post-coronavirus.
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