Do Boris Johnson's concessions on NHS surcharge go far enough?

Injustices in UK Immigration Bill
Boris Johnson claps for the NHS and key workers - but what effect will his immigration policies have?Boris Johnson claps for the NHS and key workers - but what effect will his immigration policies have?
Boris Johnson claps for the NHS and key workers - but what effect will his immigration policies have?

IF there’s one thing everyone can agree on in the coronavirus crisis, it’s the vital importance of the NHS. The dedication and sacrifice of doctors, nurses and other health workers during the crisis is universally recognised and praised.

Strange, then, that the UK Government should at first refuse opposition calls to exempt health and care staff from the controversial NHS surcharge which migrants are made to pay towards the cost of the health service.

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Challenged by UK Labour leader Keir Starmer on the issue, Boris Johnson said he had “thought a great deal” about dropping the charge for NHS workers but had decided against. “We must look at the realities,” he argued and claimed it was “very difficult in the current circumstances” to find alternative sources of cash.

But clearly he had not thought about it quite enough, because the following day he announced all NHS and other care workers would indeed be exempt after all.

After being in hospital with the virus, the Prime Minister went out of his way to praise two migrant nurses who had saved his life. But his initial view was still that it was fair to impose on them and their families an extra bill to help fund the NHS which they are risking their lives to work for.

The U-turn which granted the exemption came after the Government also backed down from insisting families of migrant NHS and care workers who die from Covid-19 would not be allowed to remain in the UK. These policy changes are, of course, to be welcomed. But do they go far enough?

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The NHS surcharge - introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition - is due to increase from £400 a to £624 per person per year from October and has to be paid in advance for the entire duration of the applicant’s visa or residency permit, which means families, often on low incomes, suddenly have to find thousands of pounds.

But the surcharge - regarded as part of the Home Office’s notorious “hostile environment” policy is fundamentally unfair because most migrant workers are already paying for the NHS through their taxes so the extra bill means they are paying twice. Rather than granting exemptions, the Government should be scrapping it altogether.

And that is not the end of the injustices faced by migrant workers. The Immigration Bill, which includes the provisions on the NHS surcharge, also introduces the UK Government’s much-vaunted plans to end free movement for EU citizens and create a points-based immigration system, distinguishing between skilled and unskilled workers and setting a minimum income requirement of £25,600.

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said he Bill, which passed its initial Commons stage last week, sent a clear message to anyone below the salary threshold - which would include many NHS and care staff - that they were “unskilled and unwelcome”. The Royal College of Nursing has warned the new rules will exclude some health and care workers from entering the UK and will have a devastating impact on the health and care sector.

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And, of course, it will also exclude many other low-paid workers, like supermarket staff, delivery drivers and cleaners - the very jobs that have been vital in keeping society going during the pandemic.

It is all very well for Mr Johnson to clap for key workers on a Thursday, but it could be asked what this new-found esteem is worth if even those whose lives they save are determined to pursue such discriminatory policies.

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