News | Published May 25 2020

In Focus: Johnson's U-turn on NHS surcharge

The weekly ‘clap for carers’ movement has united Britain around its support for frontline health and care workers at a time when hope and solidarity is desperately needed. At eight o’clock every Thursday, the people of Britain stand on the streets applauding; sometimes banging pots and pans; giving thanks to those people risking their lives for our health and safety.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has been particularly effusive in displaying his own personal support and always takes the time to join in the weekly nationwide clap.

However, he was accused of double standards last week when he asserted that migrant health and care workers would have to continue paying a surcharge fee of 400 pounds per year to use NHS services.

This led to mounting public and political pressure, with leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer criticising the PM for calling on the country to protect and honour key workers, while discriminating against those same workers who are migrants.

Starmer argued that the fee was not only morally wrong, but financially unfair on migrant health and care workers on the national living wage, who would need to work for seventy hours to pay off the fee, and even more so when the fee is due to increase in October to 624 pounds per year.

Starmer’s challenge to the PM prompted internal opposition from within the Conservative Party, with former party chairman Lord Patten calling Johnson’s defence of the surcharge “immoral ”, and going on BBC Radio5 Live to put forward his case that “It’s monstrous that people who come to our country to help and risk their lives aren’t treated properly.”

Another senior Conservative, former vice chairman Robert Gale, thought the move politically dangerous, making the government look “mean-spirited, doctrinaire, and petty.”

This political and popular pressure seemingly forced Johnson’s hand. Less than 24 hours after his dispatch box duel with Starmer, the PM instructed home secretary Priti Patel and health secretary Matt Hancock to remove the surcharge rapidly, before the clap for carers at eight o clock that same day.

The opposition welcomed the change, with Starmer calling it “a victory for common sense”, and many Tory MPs saying they would support the opposition as they plan to table a move next month to legally remove the surcharge from the government’s immigration bill.

The government’s policy change comes within a wider context and debate about the government’s latest immigration bill, which includes the surcharge, and was first tabled to the House of Commons on Monday the 18th of May. The bill seeks to create a legislative road-map for immigration policy post-Brexit, repealing freedom of movement within the EU and the EEA, and creating a points-based system that puts all people looking to live and work in the UK on an equal footing.

However, critics have argued that the move to exclude people based on elements such as their ability to speak English, or their income levels, would leave many if not all health and care workers short of the mark.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds argued in the Commons during a debate over the bill that “those who clapped on Thursday are only too happy to vote through a bill that will send a powerful message to those same people - that they are not considered by this government to be skilled workers.” Now that the opposition has successfully pushed Johnson and a sizeable chunk of the Conservative Party around to their amendments to the Bill, how far will this continue during and after the coronavirus pandemic?

It’s certainly clear there’s a big debate to be had around the NHS, its levels of services, the amount of government spending it needs, and the position of labour, and more specifically migrant labour, in the NHS and the country at large. The country will look demonstrably different when we return to a proverbial “new normal”, however the specifics are incumbent on the government’s strategy for post-COVID social and economic restructuring, Johnson’s political will to implement this, and the efficacy of Starmer’s opposition. 

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Authored by

George Walker
May 25 2020

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