Ahead of the Tories’ latest attempt to open up our health service to big money, we know that hundreds of thousands of people in our country are already forced to pay to use the NHS.
Hundreds of thousands of NHS and care staff who come from overseas and who’ve fought on the frontline of this pandemic have had to pay £624 per year to access care from the NHS that they themselves work in.
Boris Johnson knows this. In May last year, amid that very first lockdown, the prime minister made a promise. It was front-page news. He said – after much cajoling from the public, Labour, trade unions and his own MPs – that NHS and care workers from abroad, who we applauded on our doorsteps, would no longer be insulted by being expected to pay to use the health service. So then, why is it, that more than a year after the policy came into force, his ministers don’t know how many NHS and care staff have been refunded the NHS fees they paid?
I’ve asked ministers time and time again if they know how many health and care heroes have got their money back. I’ve asked in Select Committees, in the House of Commons, and in writing. Each time ministers have dodged giving me an answer, with one even accusing me of “playing politics” on a policy that the prime minister himself announced.
At least 190,000 people who work in the NHS have a nationality that isn’t British. Many of these will be being charged to use the NHS. With ministers being so evasive, I’m really worried that if they let the public see the figures, we’d see that only a tiny fraction of NHS and care staff have been refunded.
This smells like another one of Boris Johnson’s broken promises.
Unison already warned last year that “low-paid NHS and social care workers risk missing out on reimbursements,” after the government began backtracking on their announcement.
This week will see the Conservative Party’s latest attempt to allow private companies to have a hand in our NHS. I’m using this as an opportunity to amend their Health and Care Bill to force the health secretary to publish the figures on these NHS charges. I’ve invited MPs of all parties to support my amendment.
I’ve met nurses, porters and hospital cleaners who worked in my Luton North constituency during the pandemic who’ve told me how difficult it is to pay these £624 annual NHS charges. These are NHS workers who are being forced to go to a food bank to feed their families. These are the nurses working all hours possible but are still unable to keep their families’ heads above water. One Luton nurse even told me that she had to borrow £1,000 from a colleague so she could afford to pay the NHS charges for her and her son.
For these health workers, it’s so important that we hold the prime minister to his promise. Charging NHS workers to use the health service that they work in every day – looking after our loved ones, saving lives – is so obviously wrong. Labour leader Keir Starmer quite rightly said at the time that the prime minister’s vow to health workers from overseas was a “victory for common decency”. I completely agree because these NHS charges so clearly fly in the face of the founding principles of an NHS, free at the point of use.
Boris Johnson has a chance to keep his pledge in the coming days. It was a straightforward promise that I agree with. NHS and social care staff should not be being charged to use the NHS if they get sick.
Sarah Owen is a member of the Health and Social Care Select Committee and has been the Labour MP for Luton North since 2019
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