The British government was forced to back down on Thursday over a controversial policy of not exempting migrant health care workers from the NHS surcharge, which sees immigrants pay a yearly contribution to the country’s healthcare system in addition to their usual taxes.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “The PM has asked the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care to remove NHS and care workers from the NHS surcharge as soon as possible.

“Work by officials is now underway on how to implement the change and full details will be announced in the coming days.

“As the PM said in the House of Commons, he has been thinking about this a great deal. He has been a personal beneficiary of carers from abroad and understands the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff,” the spokesman said.

He added: “The purpose of the NHS surcharge is to benefit the NHS, help to care for the sick and save lives. NHS and care workers from abroad who are granted visas are doing this already by the fantastic contribution which they make.”

The NHS surcharge will remain in place for migrants who work outside the medical sector, and will rise from £400 ($489.5) to £624 a year from October, as previously planned.

A snap poll by YouGov on Thursday showed that 58% of Brits believed care workers should be exempt from the NHS surcharge, with only 30% believing they should pay it.

But the same survey indicated that overall support for the NHS surcharge for other immigrants remains high, as 62% of Brits support the policy, with only 23% opposing it.

On Wednesday, the upper tribunal of the immigration and asylum chamber ruled that visa and NHS surcharge fees can be waived if applicants can prove that they are destitute and cannot afford them. The court ruling further focused the spotlight on the issue.

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer welcomed the government’s U-turn, tweeting on Thursday: “Boris Johnson is right to have u-turned and backed our proposal to remove the NHS charge for health professionals and care workers.

“This is a victory for common decency and the right thing to do. We cannot clap our carers one day and then charge them to use our NHS the next.”

The issue of the NHS surcharge applying to migrants who work in the healthcare sector has dominated news coverage this week, and provoked an almost universal choir of disapproval from opposition parties, healthcare professional bodies, and even the backbenches of the ruling party.

In the run-up to the government reversing its stance, Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, the British Medical Association Council chair had said: “The BMA [British Medical Association] has consistently said that all healthcare workers should be exempt from paying the immigration health surcharge – and this is more important now than ever. These staff are also already paying tax and national insurance like everybody else – meaning they are being charged twice for NHS treatment.”

Dame Donna Kinnair, the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “We are urging the home secretary to reconsider and waive this charge for healthcare staff from overseas as a matter of urgency… The current pandemic has served to reaffirm the importance of our internationally educated staff. Without them here, patient care would be at risk.”

The Scottish nationalist SNP and Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru parties also blasted the policy of not exempting migrant health workers.

Former chairman of the ruling Conservative Party Lord Patten said imposing the surcharge on migrant health workers would be “immoral and monstrous.” Former Conservative Party Vice-Chair Sir Roger Gale MP said it would “rightly be perceived as mean spirited.”

Conservative MP William Wragg, also the chair of the House of Commons’ public administration and constitutional affairs committee, was particularly vocal on this issue, and pledged to support the opposition Labour Party’s proposal to amend the bill to include an exemption for migrant health care workers.

At the time, he said: “Now is the time for a generosity of spirit towards those who have done so much good.”

On Thursday, Wragg tweeted: “Very pleased to hear of exemption for migrant NHS & care workers from NHS surcharge. I’m very grateful to Boris Johnson who has shown true leadership, listened and reflected. Thank you to him and to my colleagues for their strong representations.”

The pandemic has claimed more than 329,800 lives in 188 countries and regions since originating in China last December. The US and Europe are currently the world’s worst-hit regions.

More than 5.04 million cases have been reported worldwide and over 1.92 million people have recovered to date, according to figures compiled by the US’ Johns Hopkins University.

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