Coronavirus: Syrian refugee brings end to UK migrant health service fee

Opposition leader hails government decision as 'a victory for common decency'

Hassan Akkad. Courtesy Hassan Akkad
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The British government on Thursday announced that foreign healthcare support workers would be exempt from a medical charge on migrants, after an outcry sparked by the coronavirus outbreak.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the immigration health surcharge as recently as Wednesday, saying it raised much-needed funds for the state-run National Health Service.

The decision followed an emotional plea from a Syrian refugee who joined Britain’s coronavirus fight as a hospital cleaner in London.

Hassan Akkad, 32, who fled Syria in 2015, called on Mr Johnson to end the surcharge to use Britain’s NHS.

Mr Akkad thanked the British public for helping to pressure the government into waiving the fee for him and his colleagues.

“You restored my faith and my colleagues’ faith in this country,” he said on Twitter. “I am feeling proud and happy and grateful."

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour party, earlier condemned the levy at a time when so many foreign NHS and social care workers were on the front lines of the Covid-19 response.

Mr Starmer quoted a letter from the Doctors' Association saying the fee was "a gross insult to all".

A spokesman for Downing Street said all NHS and care staff, including porters and cleaners, would now be exempt.

"The purpose of the surcharge is to benefit the NHS, help to care for the sick and save lives," the spokesman said.

"NHS and care workers from abroad who are granted visas are doing this already by the fantastic contribution they make."

Mr Starmer said the decision was "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, hours before the weekly tribute to front-line workers.

The decision is the second change of policy brought about by Mr Akkad in 24 hours.

On Wednesday, the government expanded a bereavement scheme allowing families and dependants of migrant NHS staff who die from coronavirus to stay in Britain.

Mr Akkad, in an emotional video addressing Mr Johnson, said it was not fair that care workers, cleaners and porters were left out.

The ruling Conservatives have heaped praise on the NHS for the way it is coping with coronavirus, which has killed 36,042 people in Britain, the latest official tally says.

But critics say a decade of spending cuts had left the service stretched to the limit when the outbreak erupted.

The immigration health surcharge was introduced by the Conservatives in 2015 and is now £400 (Dh1,796) a year, but will rise to £624 in October.