Boris Johnson is facing a growing rebellion from his own MPs and senior party figures over his decision to keep the NHS surcharge for migrant healthcare workers.
Three influential Commons committee chairs have backed calls for the fee to be scrapped, or waived, including William Wragg, chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, Bob Neill, chair of the justice select committee and Robert Halfon, the education committee chairman.
Former Tory party vice-chair Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet, said it would “rightly be perceived as mean spirited” while Andrew Boff, a senior Tory on the Greater London Assembly, said: “I’m very proud of my party but this is not its finest hour. These people have saved lives, then we give them a bill.”
Gale tweeted: “I strongly believe that the £400 charge should be waived for those immigrants currently working in health and care services and saving lives.”
Former Tory party chairman Lord Patten said the fee would be “immoral and monstrous”.
Wragg was the first to go public with his unease about the charge. He tweeted on Wednesday night: “Now is the time for a generosity of spirit towards those who have done so much good.”
He said he was sure his Tory colleagues would be supportive of his stance.
Politicians and healthcare workers have called on the government to scrap the NHS surcharge for migrant care workers coming from outside the European Economic Area. The current surcharge is £400 per year and is expected to rise to £624 in October. Doctors, nurses and paramedics are currently exempt from paying the charge for one year.
Neill told the Evening Standard that the charge was “a small sum in the overall scheme of things” and we should show generosity of spirit as a nation.
Halfon said: “I hope the government thinks again on this surcharge, or at the very least, comes up with a payment scheme to ensure that all those NHS workers who are on low pay have higher wages and a better standard of living.”
Tory MPs in Scotland and in London are said to be uneasy with the fee as they are the regions that rely most heavily on migrant labour in the healthcare sector and where immigration policies can be hard to defend.
Boff, who has previously run to be the Tory candidate for the mayor of London, said having to back the surcharge when knocking on doors in the capital would make him very uncomfortable and he does not intend to do so.
The government has said it wants to keep the charge because it has raised £900m for the NHS.
“They can afford [to scrap it]. They have the money because they are working on borrowing by necessity,” Boff said. “We should absolutely look at this – we don’t require the NHS surcharge for people who have done national service for this country.”
The Home Office minister James Brokenshire said on Thursday the government would keep the policy under review but that it was important to keep what he described as a “sense of contribution to the NHS” from migrant workers.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was difficult to scrap the charge for those working in social care as they were not tied to a specific NHS trust and would have “disparate” levels of leave to remain in the UK.
He said: “I’m just saying that it is complicated. We continue to keep this under review but the principle of the NHS surcharge, the support that it provides financially to the NHS, and indeed that sense of contribution to the NHS, I think is important, and the prime minister I think was right to underline that in what he said yesterday.”
Brokenshire said the surcharge was “there to provide funding for the NHS and the basic principle that if you come to this country, that you are working, that you’ve made that contribution”.
Labour, the Scottish National party and the Royal College of Nursing want health workers to be exempt from the “unfair” charge.
He said he had “thought a great deal” about this issue after his experience of being cared for by nurses from overseas when he was in intensive care with coronavirus.
One Tory minister said he did not think that the odd Tory MP raising their concerns about the issue would lead to a full backbench backlash.
“There will be questions and queries but when it comes down to it, I don’t think we’re heading for a large-scale rebellion,” he said.