LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — The British government on Thursday announced that foreign care workers would be exempt from a charge imposed on migrants to fund the health service, after an outcry sparked by the coronavirus outbreak.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had defended the immigration health surcharge as recently as Wednesday, saying it raised much-needed funds for the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
But Keir Starmer, the main opposition Labour leader, condemned the levy at a time when so many foreign NHS and social care workers are on the frontline of the COVID-19 response.
He quoted a letter from the Doctors’ Association, an industry body, saying the tax was “a gross insult to all”.
A spokesman for Johnson’s Downing Street office said all NHS and care staff, including porters and cleaners, will now be exempt.
“The purpose of the NHS surcharge is to benefit the NHS, help to care for the sick and save lives,” he said.
“NHS and care workers from abroad who are granted visas are doing this already by the fantastic contribution which they make.”
Starmer said the decision was “a victory for common decency and the right thing to do”.
Noting that it came just hours before the weekly tribute to frontline staff, he added: “We cannot clap our carers one day and then charge them to use our NHS the next.”
The decision is the second change of policy towards foreign workers in 24 hours.
On Wednesday, the government expanded a bereavement scheme allowing families and dependents of migrant NHS staff who die from coronavirus to stay in Britain, after criticism that care workers, cleaners and porters were left out.
Johnson’s Conservatives have heaped praise on the NHS for the way it is coping with coronavirus, which has killed 36,042 people in Britain, according to the latest official tally.
But critics say a decade of spending cuts had left the service stretched to the limit when the outbreak erupted.
Johnson told MPs on Wednesday that during his time in intensive care with COVID-19 last month, he was a “personal beneficiary of carers who have come from abroad and frankly saved my life”.
But he said: “We must look at the realities. This is a great national service — it is a national institution — that needs funding.”
The immigration health surcharge was introduced by the Conservatives in 2015 and is currently £400 ($490, 446 euros) a year, rising to £624 in October.
It currently does not apply to EU nationals but those who arrive in Britain after the post-Brexit transition period will have to pay.
© Agence France-Presse