London, United Kingdom – Anger is growing towards the British government over its refusal to exempt overseas NHS workers, many of whom are currently putting their lives at risk on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, from paying a fee for healthcare.
While doctors, nurses and paramedics have been granted a one-year exemption from the charge amid the pandemic, those working in lower-paid roles such as hospital cleaners, porters and carers must still pay.
The annual fee is currently 400 pounds ($490) and will rise to 624 pounds in October – a high sum for people earning the minimum wage. It must be paid regardless of whether individuals use the healthcare service.
It currently applies to people from outside the European Economic Area, but will include European migrants after the Brexit transition period ends.
Referring to his own battle with coronavirus, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Parliament on Wednesday: “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.”
But, he added: “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 … it’s very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources.”
.@BorisJohnson explaining why he thinks NHS surcharge for non-EEA immigrants must stay. The explanation is reprehensible: he argues, without shame, that it's there to make money. It's the *National* Health Service; it can't be funded by making some immigrants pay twice for it. pic.twitter.com/r4GLRrRERW
— Prof Tanja Bueltmann (@cliodiaspora) May 20, 2020
Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, tweeted: “What kind of person is it who owes his life to overseas health workers and then not only insists they have to pay a surcharge to use the NHS themselves but also plans to increase that surcharge in the worst recession for 300 years. Answer: Boris Johnson, our Prime Minister.”
Omar Khan, director of race equality think-tank Runnymede Trust, said: “The ‘principle’ behind the NHS surcharge is that migrants can and should always be treated poorly and unfairly if you can get away with it. The same principle that underpinned the Windrush injustice, and that has other various policies that still are in force.”
Some within Johnson’s own Conservative Party also condemned his decision to maintain the charge.
William Wragg, a Conservative MP, tweeted: “I will support the nhs fee exemption for migrant nhs and care workers. Now is the time for a generosity of spirit towards those who have done so much good. I am sure that @Conservatives colleagues will be supportive.”
The debate came after the government won some praise by reversing its decision to exclude lower-paid migrant NHS workers from a bereavement scheme allowing family members indefinite leave to remain, free of charge, if the NHS worker dies.
The NHS workers that had been excluded, until the u-turn, included cleaners, porters or carers, but the scheme had applied to doctors and nurses from abroad.
The government u-turn came after political opposition and a widely-shared plea by Syrian refugee, Hassan Akkad, who called on Johnson to “reconsider” his position. Akkad, who works as a hospital cleaner in a London hospital, had said he felt betrayed by the exclusion.