Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer sparred over the issue in the Commons yesterday, with Mr Johnson insisting that because of the money it raised, charging NHS and care staff was “the right way forward”.
But after reports of a gathering Tory rebellion over the issues, a Downing Street spokesman said this afternoon: “The PM has 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.”
Yesterday Sir Keir said many health workers are “risking their lives” during the Covid-19 pandemic, but questioned whether it was right that those who arrived in the UK to work on the front line should pay hundreds of pounds, and sometimes thousands, to use the NHS.
He warned a care worker earning the minimum wage would have to work for 70 hours to pay off the fee, which is due to increase from £400 a year to £624 from October.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson told MPs: “I’ve thought a great deal about this and 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.”
He added: “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 £900 million, and it’s very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources.
“So with great respect to the point (Sir Keir) makes, I do think that is the right way forward.”
More details are expected to be announced on the U-turn in the coming days, but officials are said to be working on the changes from now.
The spokesman said: “As the PM said in the House of Commons, he has been thinking about this a great deal.
“He has been a personal beneficiary of carers from abroad and understands the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff.
“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.”
Nurses Jenny McGee and Luis Pitarma, who Mr Johnson said saved his life during his bout of coronavirus, were from abroad, a fact he acknowledged yesterday.
Earlier today Tory peer and former party chairman Lord Patten called the Government’s position “appalling” and “monstrous”.
Former Conservative Party vice-chairman Sir Roger Gale warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson that not to waive the current surcharge “would rightly be perceived as mean-spirited, doctrinaire and petty”.
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chairman William Wragg called for an immediate change in policy, adding “now is the time for a generosity of spirit towards those who have done so much good”.
The senior Tories echoed calls for the Government to scrap the NHS surcharge for migrant care workers coming from outside the European Economic Area.
Sir Keir said: “It is grossly hypocritical to clap our carers one day and then charge them to use the NHS the next.
“Labour is calling for an end to this injustice and we would urge all Tory MPs who agree with us to back us.”
It comes just a day after the Government extended its bereavement scheme, which grants indefinite leave to remain to families and dependants of migrant NHS staff who die as a result of contracting coronavirus, to NHS support staff after criticism yesterday.
The extension of the scheme – which was originally announced last month – to include cleaners, porters, social care staff and care home workers will be effective immediately and retrospectively, the Home Office confirmed.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said last night: “Every death in this crisis is a tragedy, and sadly some NHS support staff and social care workers have made the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of saving the lives of others.”
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