Politicians and health professionals have united in their call on the government to scrap the NHS surcharge for migrant care workers coming from outside the European Economic Area.
The current surcharge is £400 per year and is set to rise to £624 in October.
The fee has been described as hypocritical and divisive by politicians from opposition parties, with some wanting it to be scrapped altogether or at the very least, waived for a year in line with other medical professions.
Doctors, nurses and paramedics have been granted a one-year exemption from the charge, but the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said on Monday there were no plans to extend the same benefit to care workers.
The British Medical Association council chair said the surcharge, which was first introduced in 2015, penalised hard-working staff who were risking their lives by working on the response to coronavirus.
“The BMA has consistently said that all healthcare workers should be exempt from paying the immigration health surcharge – and this is more important now than ever,” Dr Chaand Nagpaul said. “These staff are also already paying tax and national insurance like everybody else – meaning they are being charged twice for NHS treatment.”
Dame Donna Kinnair, the chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “We are urging the home secretary to reconsider and waive this charge for healthcare staff from overseas 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.
“The current pandemic has served to reaffirm the importance of our internationally educated staff. Without them here, patient care would be at risk.”
It is expected that opposition political parties will table amendments to the immigration bill when it comes back to parliament that will demand the surcharge be scrapped either temporarily or indefinitely, or modified for healthcare workers.
The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said: “This issue has been mishandled by the UK government from the start of the coronavirus crisis.
“These additional health fees for NHS staff are no way to mark the extraordinary service of those at the healthcare frontline. Our NHS and care workers are working tirelessly to help support all those most in need.”
The SNP’s Dr Philippa Whitford, who has been back on the frontline as a medical doctor for the past two months in Scotland, said a charge could only be justified for the initial year someone came to the UK because they would not have paid into the tax system yet.
“It’s divisive and hypocritical to have politicians making a big deal of clapping for carers on a Thursday night and they say you’ll have to pay £625 to use the service they’re working in. Non-EEA migrants are already paying through tax, so to raise it to £625 is another barrier for them.”
Rachael Maskell, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for ageing and older people, said: “I think it’s disgusting that the government puts a charge on accessing these services and it should be scrapped altogether.”
The Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru have both said the Home Office should scrap the surcharge altogether and give NHS workers enhanced rights to stay in the UK.
The Lib Dem home affairs spokesperson, Christine Jardine, said: “The Liberal Democrats are calling on the government to give all foreign nationals working in the NHS and social care indefinite leave to remain in the UK, with no costs or bureaucratic hurdles.
“The government must also abandon its cruel plans to raise the immigration health surcharge.”
Plaid Cymru’s health spokesperson, Ben Lake MP, said the fact the government encouraged people to clap for carers while still applying the charge was “hypocrisy of the highest order”.
The party is tabling an amendment to the immigration bill that would grant any NHS worker British citizenship if they wanted it.