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”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was “a victory for common decency”.
Many backbench Conservative MPs were also thought to be unhappy about the surcharge, among them Tobias Ellwood, who told BBC Newsnight last night that the government should fully review care and that it was “curious how we clap for NHS staff but we under-appreciate what they’re doing”.
The health immigration surcharge on non-EU migrants was £400 per year and had been set to rise to £624 in October.
More details on the changes will be announced over the next week.
At the 5pm coronavirus daily briefing health secretary Matt Hancock said he’d been asked by Boris Johnson to remove the surcharge 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. The home secretary Priti Patel had also been informed of the change, Hancock stated.
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.
Johnson was responding to a question from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who said: “Every Thursday we go out and clap for our carers. Many of them are risking their lives for the sake of all of us.
“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?”
On Monday, foreign secretary Dominic Raab indicated that there were no plans to extend the exemption from the charge to care workers. This prompted the Royal College of Nursing to write to home secretary Priti Patel to ask that the charge is waived as a matter of urgency.
“We have already received devastating accounts from members who are struggling to pay the charge, and the impact that it is having on their families’ lives,” said RCN chief executive and general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair.
“This charge undermines the dedicated care overseas health and care staff provide to us all.”
Yesterday, meanwhile, the GMB union called for the £600m emergency social care funding to be used for Covid-19 sick pay for care workers. Frontline workers in the NHS have been offered their full and normal pay if they are off sick with the virus, but this has not been extended to care staff.
The union is calling on the government to pay full, backdated sick pay to all social care workers who have followed government advice to self-isolate.
Rachel Harrison, GMB national officer, said: “Social care workers are our key worker heroes yet have been consistently failed by the government with regards to pay, PPE and testing.
“Most social care workers, if they get coronavirus, are faced with an impossible choice – stay home on poverty sick pay which means they can’t pay the rent or put food on the table; or go into work and put colleagues and residents in danger. It’s a nightmare.
“Paying carers sick pay they can survive on is far and away the best way of controlling infection in our care homes.”