Boris Johnson has agreed to exempt migrant health and social care workers from paying a £400 (€450) mandatory surcharge to use the National Health Service (NHS).
The prime minister's U-turn follows pressure from Labour leader Keir Starmer and Conservative backbenchers who said it was unfair to ask such workers to pay the surcharge, which will rise to £624 later this year, to use the service they have helped to keep functioning during the coronavirus epidemic.
A Downing Street spokesman said Mr Johnson, who rejected Sir Keir’s call for an exemption during prime minister’s questions, had given a lot of thought to the issue.
"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," the spokesman said.
Cleaners and porters
The exemption will apply to all NHS workers, including cleaners and porters as well as medical personnel, and to all independent healthcare workers and social care workers. All other migrant workers from outside the European Economic Area will continue to have to pay the charge and the increase will go ahead as planned in October.
Sir Keir welcomed Mr Johnson's U-turn as a victory for common sense.
“Yesterday he was clear he wasn’t going to do this, so he has U-turned. But it’s the right thing to do, we can’t clap our carers on a Thursday and charge them to use our NHS on a Friday.” Asked if the exemption should be extended to other workers like supermarket staff who have played key roles during the epidemic, the Labour leader said there would have to be a settlement for frontline workers after the coronavirus crisis was over.
‘Underpaid and undervalued’
“I think there’s going to be a re-evaluation across the board at the end of this crisis because many people on the front line are underpaid and undervalued. I think there is going to have to be a settlement at the end of all this. We’ll wait until we get there but I do think there is going to have to be a rebalancing of where we’re at and how we value people,” he said.
The U-turn on migrant health workers came as health secretary Matt Hancock said the government had launched a trial of a coronavirus test that could deliver a result in 20 minutes. The on-the-spot antigen test, which would show if someone was currently infected with the virus, will be trialled on thousands of people in emergency departments, GP testing hubs and nursing homes.
If the test works, it could be rolled out on a mass scale in July, enabling those who test positive to self-isolate immediately and for their contacts to be identified and tested. Britain has recruited more than 20,000 people to operate a community contact tracing system which is due to be launched at the beginning of June.