The Home Office has doubled a charge for migrants to use the NHS, in a move that has been criticised for its impact on NHS workers and young people who have been in the UK since childhood.
The standard Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) yesterday doubled from £200 to £400 a year, a sum the Home Office says will bring much-needed funds to the National Health Service.
But those who have to pay it – even if they are already working and paying taxes – say the doubled charge will be crippling for people including NHS workers, families with children, and people who have been in the UK since childhood.
They say increased fees could contribute to a new Windrush scandal, as people unable to pay could lose their status, becoming illegal immigrants who risk being denied access to services or even deported.
Ijeoma Moore, who arrived in Britain from Nigeria when she was two years old, has to pay the surcharge every year as part of a ten-year route to citizenship.
Now 24, she says she is “terrified” about the increase, explaining that the repeated cost to renew her status is a huge financial and psychological pressure.
“It’s always weighing on your mind,” she told Sky News.
“If you’re thinking of investing in your education, saving money, even going on holiday, you have to choose what’s more important. And what’s more important is always your papers.”
Ms Moore must pay the health charge, plus Home Office fees of £1,033, every two-and-a-half years. Now the surcharge has doubled, the cost comes to more than than £2,000 every time.
“You’re constantly saving,” Ms Moore, who works as a youth rights trainer, said. “It feels really unfair. It makes you feel like an outcast.”
Young people struggle to get citizenship due to £1,012 cost
Along with other young people in similar situations, Ms Moore is campaigning against Home Office fees as part of a group called Let Us Learn.
Last year, immigration minister Caroline Nokes wrote to Dami Makinde, a member of the group, to say she had listened with “great concern” to worries about fees.
But she said that because young people use the NHS as much as adults it was “only fair that the government should include them while planning for the cost of care”.
In the response, seen by Sky News, she added that making exceptions to the surcharge requirements was difficult.
Ms Makinde, who has lived in the UK since she was eight, said she was disappointed with the response and hoped to be able to meet with Ms Nokes to discuss the “financial pressure” caused by the fees.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” the 25-year-old told Sky News. “For the government to still say we are outsiders really hurts.”
Young people like Dami have been joined in protesting the increase by groups including the Royal College of Nursing, which is appealing for the charges to be waived for nursing staff and their families.
Dame Donna Kinnair, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, told Sky News that the fees were “immoral” and could “tear families apart”.
“While overstretched health services cope with 42,000 nursing vacancies, the government is creating more barriers for international nurses by doubling the charge they must pay to work in the UK,” she said.
“They already contribute financially through National Insurance and taxation, not to mention the work they do to care for us and our loved ones. The extra charges required by the surcharge are the last thing they need.”
The Home Office says that the health surcharge increase will raise much-needed money for “sustaining and protecting” the UK’s healthcare system.
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“We welcome long-term migrants using the NHS, but we believe it is right that they make a fair and proportionate contribution to its long-term sustainability,” a spokesperson said.
“Parliament agrees and has approved the order we proposed to increase the immigration health surcharge so it better reflects the actual costs to the NHS.”