Anger is growing over the governments failure to abolish the surcharge many migrant healthcare workers must pay to access the NHS, after Priti Patel suggested it was under review three weeks ago.
It has emerged that the Home Office did not specifically review the charges beyond exempting on a one-year extraordinary basis both those whose visas were due to expire before October from that fee and the £400 surcharge, which will rise to £625 a year each later this year.
The department faces renewed condemnation for not permanently scrapping the charge after the deaths of several migrant NHS workers during the coronavirus crisis.
“We have repeatedly called for the immigration health surcharge to be waived for nursing staff,” a spokesperson from the Royal College of Nursing said. “They are already contributing through taxes and national insurance – to ask them to pay twice is simply wrong.
“This charge must be stopped. Following her announcement that the charge was being reviewed, we wrote to the home secretary urging action. We await a response and commitment to act on this.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) council, told the Independent: “In the last two months, weve seen a huge outpouring of support for our frontline staff, including those talented colleagues who have come to work here from overseas.
“Im sure they would be dismayed to find that the government is continuing to penalise them with this absurd fee during the crisis.”
The shadow health minister, Justin Madders, said the NHS would collapse without overseas staff and that it was “simply unconscionable” for them to be subject to extra charges.
“Ministers frequently tell us how proud they are of the incredible effort being made by NHS staff yet when they have the opportunity to do something tangible to demonstrate their appreciation they pull the rug up,” he said.
The Home Office tweeted on Saturday afternoon: “It is wrong to suggest the home secretary said there would be a formal review into this policy. All government policies are continuously kept under review.”
After Patels apparent announcement, there were mounting calls for the surcharge to be permanently ditched. It was introduced in 2015 as part of hostile environment laws designed to discourage illegal immigration and combat health tourism. The surcharge must be paid alongside taxes and national insurance contributions.
Dr Chandra Kanneganti, the national chair of the British International Doctors Association, said: “We know BAME doctors are disproportionately getting ill. To have to pay for the same service that they are putting their lives at risk for doesnt seem fair. This charge needs to be scrapped completely for NHS overseas workers.”
The Home Office said the surcharge raised about £900m for the NHS between 2015 and 2018-19. During this time the cost has repeatedly risen and healthcare workers have said they struggled to pay the fees. For other doctors and nurses, the charges are probably a deterrent when they consider coming to the UK.
At the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing last month, Patel said in response to a detailed question from ITV regarding the surcharge: “We have a range of measures that are, like most things in government, under review, and we are looking at everything including visas, surcharge … We are looking at everything we can do to continue to support everyone on the frontline in the NHS.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “As the home secretary said, in light of the exceptional circumstances that coronavirus presents, it is right that policies are kept under review.
“This includes how the immigration health surcharge applies. For example, the Home Office has already announced free automatic visa extensions for overseas frontline NHS workers who are working to beat the virus, including an exemption from the immigration health surcharge.”