Nurses from the EU face paying an annual £600 fee for their own health costs after Brexit in a move that will deepen the NHS staffing crisis, their leaders are warning.
The “immigration health surcharge” paid by migrants from outside Europe could be extended to people arriving from within the EU, the Home Office has admitted.
Families are already being “torn apart” by the charge, says the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), highlighting how nurses have been forced to leave their children abroad.
Evaline Omondi, from Africa - faced with paying £3,600 up front to cover three years of fees for two adults and four children - had to send her youngest children, aged six and eight, back to Kenya.
Now Janet Davies, the RCN’s chief executive, will tell its annual conference: “It could be about to get even worse. Ministers will not rule out extending this to European nurses once we leave the EU.
“The government must not put Spanish, Portuguese or Italian colleagues through the same after Brexit. We cannot afford to haemorrhage even more expertise.”
The NHS is currently short of at least 43,000 nurses across the UK – despite being boosted by a total of 140,000 staff from EU countries.
Under the surcharge, introduced in 2015, migrants must pay a £200 fee per family member for every year on their work permit, to cover possible NHS costs.
It will double to £400 later this year and last year’s Conservative election manifesto promised a £600 charge. Students would pay £450, instead of the current £150 – rising to £300 this year.
In a written parliamentary answer, Caroline Nokes, the immigration minister, said EU citizens and their family members currently in the UK would not have to pay the charge after Brexit.
They would be “protected by the withdrawal agreement,” the minister said – although the agreement is not certain, because of disagreements over future customs rules and the Irish border.
Ms Nokes then said: “Future arrangements on immigration policy after the end of the implementation period are to be confirmed.”
She added, confusingly: “We will want to ensure that any decisions on the long-term arrangements are based on evidence and engagement.”
Ms Omondi, who will explain the harsh impact of the surcharge on her family to the Belfast conference tomorrow, said it was an “awful moment”.
“We could not meet the cost and my children had to move back to Kenya. A family who came together is now in pieces, scattered all over the place,” she said.
“I try to speak to them on the phone before they sleep, but it is hard with the time difference and my work so sometimes I don't get to talk to them.”
Ms Davies will say: “When facing staff shortages in NHS and care, the UK has depended on professionals from around the world.”
Condemning the Windrush scandal for revealing “Britain being heartless, divisive and plain old nasty”, she will add: “It is shameful that families are being torn apart by this policy, too.”
But the Home Office said the surcharge had an important role to play, generating income that goes directly to the NHS.
“The government fully recognises the contribution that international professionals make to the UK and to our health service,” a spokesman added.