At PMQs this week, Keir Starmer went on the attack over the NHS surcharge which means workers coming to the UK from outside the European Economic Area have to pay a fee to use the health service. The current fee, of £400 a year, is due to rise to £624 from October. The Labour leader called on the Prime Minister to waive the charge for overseas NHS and social care workers.
In response, Johnson defended the charge and said that having thought about it 'a great deal', he had concluded funding had to be prioritised:
“We must look at the realities - this is a great national service, it's a national institution, it needs funding and those contributions actually help us to raise about £900 million, and it's very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources. So with great respect to the point [Sir Keir Starmer] makes, I do think that is the right way forward.
But with Starmer announcing that he would table an amendment to the Immigration Bill seeking to exempt NHS and care workers from the charge, a Tory rebellion is brewing. A handful of MPs have gone public to say they will support the NHS fee exemption for migrant NHS and care workers. William Wragg has said it is the time for a 'generosity of spirit' and is joined by Sir Roger Gale and one of the new 2019 intake Jonathan Gullis – the MP for Stoke on Trent North.
Behind the scenes, the number of would-be rebels is growing – they are not the usual suspects. 'There's a big sense of momentum,' says one MP who is considering their position. 'The government need to move pretty quickly'. Among those expressing concerns are several of the new intake of 2019 MPs who worry the current position goes against the public mood. Not helping matters is the fact there are a chunk of MPs already annoyed with the government on several issues – with 16 Tory MPs rebelling yesterday to back an amendment tabled by Labour’s Harriet Harman against Bernard Jenkin, No. 10's preferred candidate, becoming the chair of the Liaison Committee.
While several Tory MPs understand the logic behind keeping the exemption charge in place, there are two factors leading MPs to think twice. Firstly, coronavirus has only enhanced public support for the NHS and emotive videos are already doing the rounds of affected NHS workers complaining about it. 'That spells trouble,' says one MP.
Secondly, the dire economic picture means that in a strange way the traditional fiscal arguments hold less sway. Some are wondering if defending the surcharge is worth the bother when so much money has been spent on so much else. ‘I can see the argument for keeping it in place but at the same time, what’s another £35 million given the shit we’re in?'.
As the afternoon has gone on more MPs are expressing their discomfort. A would-be rebel points out that the £900 million Johnson said the fee raises does not appear to relate strictly to NHS and care workers, so there could be a possible compromise that would save face.
Update: The Prime Minister has adopted a shift in policy on the issue. A No. 10 spokesman has announced that the PM has asked the Home Office and Department for Health to exempt healthcare workers from the NHS surcharge:
'As the PM said in the Commons, he has been thinking about this a great deal. He been a personal beneficiary of carers from abroad and understands the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff.'