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UK government to scrap healthcare surcharge for foreign NHS and care workers after U-turn

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Foreign workers are subject to paying a surcharge on their visas for the NHS
Foreign workers are subject to paying a surcharge on their visas for the NHS   -   Copyright  Matt Dunham/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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Boris Johnson has pledged to scrap a healthcare surcharge for foreign National Health Service (NHS) and care workers in the UK after the government's initial proposal to increase it was labelled "cruel" — particularly as many of these workers had risked their lives during the pandemic.

People moving to the UK from outside the European Economic Area are currently required to pay £400 a year for the NHS surcharge.

This is set to increase to £624 a year from October.

But following huge criticism, the UK government confirmed on Thursday that it would find a way to scrap this fee altogether for foreign workers in NHS and care jobs.

It comes after pressure mounted on Boris Johnson when his opposition Keir Starmer quizzed him over the despatch box on Wednesday on his policy.

There were murmurings, too, from behind Johnson's own ranks on the matter: Conservative backbencher Jonathan Gullis tweeted his agreement with the surcharge exemption.

He wrote: "Now is the time for a generosity of spirit towards those who have done so much good."

The prime minister initially stood firm on this, having insisted in response to Starmer that the surcharge would raise vital cash.

"We must look at the realities," Johnson said, acknowledging the NHS had saved his own life weeks earlier when he was treated in intensive care for COVID-19.

He added: "This is a great national service. It's a national institution; it needs funding. Those contributions actually help us to raise about £900m and it's very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources."

It was not entirely clear where Johnson's claim of £900m came from as the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated this number was closer to £90m.

It said Johnson may have been referring to a total sum raised by the surcharge in general, although this figure is still unclear, with a range between £470m to £900m being plausible.

But while the prime minister has since backtracked partially on his proposal, other migrant workers in the UK will still be seeing their surcharges increased later this year.

This should be scrapped completely, Christina McAnea, the assistant general secretary of UNISON, told Euronews, adding that exempting health and care staff was "a good first step".

Richard Horton is the editor-in-chief of The Lancet medical journal

Nazek Ramadan, the director of non-profit organisation Migrant Voice, had a similar take, saying the fee had always been "deeply unfair", and raising it would be "particularly cruel".

She then pointed toward an already high cost for visas "leaving ordinary people impoverished," and said: "We know parents who are faced with the choice between feeding their children and renewing their visas.

"That should not happen in Britain today."