British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday did a U-turn as he ordered his Cabinet ministers to work out an exemption of a surcharge on foreign medics, including Indians, working in the UK's state-funded National Health Service (NHS).
The move comes just a day after he had dismissed the possibility of a review into what has been repeatedly branded as an "unfair" burden on professionals already contributing directly to the health service in Parliament.
"The Prime Minister has asked me and the Home Secretary [Priti Patel] to look at how NHS and care workers can be removed from this as soon as possible," said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, when asked about the annual Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) imposed along with a visa to raise additional funds for the state-funded health service.
"But the purpose of the surcharge is a fair one, to raise funds for the NHS," he said.
The Opposition Labour Party, which had thrown its weight behind the doctors' organisations campaigning against the surcharge, welcomed the "U-turn".
"Boris Johnson is right to have U-turned and backed our proposal to remove the NHS charge for health professionals and care workers," said Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer.
"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," he said, in reference to the weekly clap for frontline workers which takes place in the UK every Thursday at 8pm local time.
On Wednesday, Starmer had challenged the UK prime minister in the House of Commons during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions on whether he thought it was "fair" to add the surcharge on healthcare workers.
"I have thought a great deal about this and I do accept and understand the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff. I have been a personal beneficiary of people and carers who have come from abroad and, frankly, saved my life," replied Johnson, making a reference to his COVID-19 hospitalisation last month during which he was cared for by foreign medics.
"I know exactly their importance. On the other hand, we must look at the realities that this is a great national service, a national institution which needs funding and those contributions actually help us to raise about 900 million pounds. It is very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources, so I do think that is the right way forward," he said.
However, a rebellion began brewing right after within his own party ranks, with the Conservative chair of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, William Wragg, saying he would be backing an Opposition amendment to the Immigration Bill calling for an IHS exemption for NHS and care workers.
"We have consistently highlighted the unfairness of the immigration health surcharge and called for its removal, so this recognition of the enormous contribution of our migrant colleagues to the health service is welcome but long overdue," said the British Medical Association (BMA), among the groups campaigning for the removal of the surcharge for NHS workers.
The IHS, introduced in April 2015, is imposed on anyone in the UK on a work, study or family visa for longer than six months and is set for a further hike from GBP 400 to GBP 624 per year. With the charge applicable on each member of a family, the overall cost is seen as prohibitive, over and above the tax contributions.
In a letter to UK Home Secretary Priti Patel by the Doctors Association UK earlier this week, Indian-origin chair Dr Rinesh Parmar had yet again branded the surcharge as "deeply unfair".
"At a time when we are mourning colleagues your steadfast refusal to reconsider the deeply unfair immigration health surcharge is a gross insult to all who are serving this country at its time of greatest need," noted the letter.
According to a recent Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) study, Indians make up one in 10 of all foreign-born doctors in the NHS and the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO), which represents this group, is among the organisations campaigning against the "discriminatory" surcharge for some years now.