In Depth

Reaction: Boris Johnson U-turns on surcharge for NHS migrant workers

PM backs down over levy following pressure from both Keir Starmer and senior Tories

The government has axed the NHS surcharge for foreign health and care workers amid threats of a rebellion by Conservative MPs.

Boris Johnson has asked the Department for Health and the Home Office to exempt migrant staff from the levy - or as The Independent puts it, from paying “to access the very health service they are supporting” - “as soon as possible”, a Downing Street spokesperson said.

Keir Starmer labelled the U-turn “a victory for common decency”, adding: “We cannot clap our carers one day and then charge them to use our NHS the next.”

Johnson had faced “escalating tension from within his own ranks” after the Labour leader grilled him about the charge during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, says The Guardian.

The Tory leader “bowed to massive pressure” after senior Conservative MPs described the surcharge as “immoral” and “mean-spirited”, adds the Daily Mail.

The policy reversal, announced on Thursday evening, marked the PM’s second U-turn in 24 hours, after he also said that migrant workers will now be included in the NHS bereavement scheme. 

Johnson had “fuelled” anger over the NHS surcharge during PMQs by suggesting that the policy “raised £900m in essential funding for the health service”, the newspaper reports. “That prompted the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) to wade in, saying that in fact the 225,000 foreign NHS staff and care workers accounted for only around £90m a year.” 

Workers from outside the European Economic Area who come to the UK currently have to pay an annual £400 fee even if they do not use the NHS, and the charge is due to rise to £624 this October. However, all migrant NHS staff have now been exempted, including health workers, porters, cleaners and social care staff.

Doctors, nurses and paramedics don’t have to pay either, having previously been granted a one-year exemption

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“Morally indefensible in normal times, the surcharge became politically untenable at a time when these people are being asked to put their lives on the line,” says The Independent in a scathing editorial. 

The newspaper notes that many of the staff who would have had to pay the levy are from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, “for whom the mortality rate is distressingly higher than average” and who “should not be charged for the privilege of helping to save the lives of others”.

The Times says the U-turn is “a victory for Sir Keir Starmer”, a verdict echoed by The Daily Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch writer Michael Deacon.

“First: a correction. In [Wednesday’s] sketch I may have given the impression that PMQs was a draw. I was wrong. Sir Keir Starmer won,” Deacon writes.

However, the change of heart “shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a setback” for Johnson, he adds. “U-turns aren’t always a sign of weakness. In fact, they can be a sign of strength. Because a good leader listens.

“And a good leader of the opposition forces him to do so.”

Johnson may also have been listening to what voters have to say. 

A snap YouGov poll found of almost 2,000 people found that 48% of Conservative voters thought that carers coming to Britain should not have to pay to use the NHS, versus 43% who said they should.

Among Labour voters, the verdict was 68% and 21% respectively, while an overall total of 58% of respondents opposed the NHS surcharge.

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