Indian doctors working within the UK's state-funded National Health Service (NHS) have written to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to scrap an "unfair and discriminatory" surcharge imposed on foreign doctors, many of whom are working round the clock to combat the coronavirus pandemic that has infected over 9,500 people in the country.
The Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS), introduced in April 2015, is imposed on anyone in the UK on a work, study or family visa for longer than six months in order to raise additional funds for the NHS.
In the Budget earlier this month, Indian-origin UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the charge would be further hiked from 400 pounds to 624 pounds per year.
"We believe that this surcharge is discriminatory and unfair, as the overseas workers are already paying their due share of National Insurance contributions, superannuation and income tax," reads the letter sent to Boris Johnson on Wednesday by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO), which has been lobbying against the IHS for many years.
"We request you to remove the health surcharge with immediate effect. The NHS has been in a workforce crisis for several years, but now with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been a worse time for an overstrained service, and we require all the help we can get to meet the challenges," appeals the letter, signed by BAPIO President Ramesh Mehta, chair JS Bamrah and Secretary Professor Parag Singhal.
They believe that the health surcharge not only adds a significant financial burden on new arrivals but also makes them feel "undervalued", and it proves a "disincentive" to BAPIO's recruitment drives from India.
"By removing this, the government will demonstrate the genuineness of their caring attitude towards frontline staff," the letter notes.
It comes just as thousands of retired Indian-origin doctors and nurses began answering the UK government's call to return to the NHS as the health service comes under considerable strain, with over 9,500 positive cases of COVID-19 and the country's death toll from the deadly virus rising to 465.
"These are exceptional and extraordinary times and we are here to assist the health service as much as possible. We are advising our recently retired doctors to return to work, of course with the provision that if any of them are unwell or have a chronic illness they must follow the government advice and self isolate," said Mr Mehta.
The UK has an estimated 60,000 doctors of Indian-origin working within the NHS, often referred to as the backbone of the country's health service.
Among the recently retired, at least a couple of thousand are likely to be of Indian-origin, with a further estimated 10,000 in long-term retirement who are also being rallied to assist in whatever capacity possible.
During his weekly briefing from 10 Downing Street on Wednesday evening, Boris Johnson issued a "special thank you" to these returning medics and the nearly 405,000 people who have volunteered to support the NHS.
"To all of you, and all the former NHS staff who are coming back now into the service, I say thank you on behalf of the entire country," he had said.
The effort was also lauded by the MPs in the House of Commons before Parliament closed its session on Wednesday, earlier than planned for its Easter break to comply with the strict social distancing rules amid a near-lockdown and "stay at home" government order in an effort to try and control the rapid spread of the pandemic.