The Prime Minister has asked the Home Office to remove NHS workers and social care workers from the immigration health surcharge as soon as possible. As Katy Balls reported earlier today, frustrations were growing within the Tory party that healthcare workers could be clobbered with this fee as they work tirelessly to help British patients get through the Covid crisis. It seems Boris Johnson has listened to his backbenchers and u-turned. The fee will be waived for a range of health staff, from doctors and nurses to technicians and cleaners.
This exemption is good news for workers in the healthcare sector, but it shouldn’t be the end of the policy review. This update for health workers creates an opportunity to assess the fairness of the surcharge overall.
The health surcharge is a fee paid upfront when a migrant applies for their visa. Workers who will benefit from the free waiver will be those looking to renew their visas. Those who did so recently will have paid a colossal fee. It’s not £400 as has been widely circulated, but £400 per year on the visa. High-tier working visas are often issued on a three-year basis; that’s over £1,000 (not including other fees) a migrant is paying upfront to migrate to the UK. If they have a partner, double it. A few kids, quadruple it.
It’s a painful bill for anyone, but for some people this upfront fee makes migrating to the UK impossible, despite meeting criteria or even securing a job. Exempting NHS and social care workers makes a lot of sense, especially if you want workers to choose to stay and treat British patients, rather than return home. But the real hurdle isn’t sector-based, but salary-based. Nurses and many social workers will have been badly burdened by this fee, medical specialists and surgeons, not as much.
That’s not to say the latter group shouldn’t benefit from the wavier. But what about the migrants working in other key sectors, helping the country get through the Covid crisis?
The surcharge makes sure that any migrants, especially those in need of NHS services early after they’ve come to Britain, have contributed to the cost of their treatment. But migrants who come to the UK help to fund the NHS in the usual way: they pay tax. This surcharge isn't really about paying one's way to access the NHS, but an excuse for an additional fee in the visa application process. The surcharge is set to increase yet again in October, a move that industry experts fear will make the the current situation worse. ‘I strongly suggest that the government reverses its decision to increase the immigration health surcharge given the current climate,' says Zenia Chopra, head of client services for immigration at law firm Kingsley Napley. 'The fee has been disproportionately ticking up for years, with no real explanation as to why. Now, more than ever, it is vital we don't put off more key workers from coming to the UK.'
It’s not just the costs, but the payment structure that could be reconsidered as well. Especially for younger workers without savings, a monthly or even yearly option to pay the fee would break down the barrier of needing a significant sum ready for spending on a visa fee. The UK's plans for a new immigration system make it easier for lots of people outside of the European Union to come to the UK, but if financial hurdles like the surcharge are made increasingly expensive and harder to overcome, the liberal changes to the system may start getting cancelled out.
Before the past few days, this health surcharge for migrants was a niche public policy topic, only familiar to immigration experts and those who have paid the fee. Now, it's become a nation-wide issue about fairness and respect. It's about time the issue was tackled for healthcare workers, but let's not not stop there. It's time to reform the system so it can compliment the UK's plan to bring top talent to the UK, and stop deterring it.