The BBC’s ‘Today’ programme this morning featured an interview with Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee who is currently working as a cleaner in an NHS hospital. Mr Akkad posted a very brief but powerful video on Twitter yesterday in which directly, and with barely suppressed emotion, he addressed Boris Johnson asking him to reconsider the government’s policy of paying compensation for the deaths of doctors and nurses who have died as a result of Covid-19 in the service of the NHS, and guaranteeing their bereaved families the right to remain in UK after their deaths, but not treating cleaners, porters and others working for the NHS who have died of the same disease in the same way. The video went viral more or less instantly, was seen by millions of viewers, received numerous ‘likes’, and within a few hours the Government had performed a spectacular U-turn.
At Prime Minister’s Question time yesterday Boris Johnson, while once again thanking the two nurses who ‘saved my life’ while he was in ICU, again refused to reconsider his government’s policy of charging all non-British NHS workers a £400 per family member surcharge for using the NHS, shortly to be raised to £624 per person. You read that right. Our Home Secretary Priti Patel, she of the immutably fixed supercilious sneer, has taken on the role of ensuring a hostile environment for all immigrants and asylum seekers with unseemly relish, and was proposing to charge foreign nationals working in the NHS £624 per person every year, on top of their income tax, for the privilege of risking, and in all too many cases losing, their lives to keep the rest of us healthy. Johnson justified retaining the surcharge on the basis that the NHS is ‘a national institution, it needs funding and those contributions actually help us to raise about £900m, and it’s very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources.’
This was a serious miscalculation on Boris’s part. It was a literal miscalculation in that his perennial laziness and lack of preparation led him to a tenfold exaggeration of the amount raised by the NHS surcharge: the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that the figure is, in fact; around £90m. But one stopped expecting Boris to tell the truth long ago. Potentially more significant a miscalculation was Boris’s misreading of his own backbenchers. When Tory backbenchers start muttering about a surtax on immigrants being ‘unconscionable’ you know that it must be an electoral liability. To do them justice it is possible that some of them may also appreciate just how cynical and xenophobic the surtax it is. Whatever the case, they clearly put enough pressure on Boris for him to perform the daddy of all screeching, tyre-burning, hand-brake U-turns 24 hours later. That is two in two days, and will be even more embarrassing for the Tory grandees than Boris’s abject performances in parliament.
I have no doubt that the first U-turn, with regard to the bereavement compensation, was a just a typically cynical and unprincipled pandering to what Twitter was showing to be a feeling of injustice among the electorate. The omission of NHS porters, cleaners and security guards from the scheme could conceivably just have been an oversight in the first place. While doctors and nurses were busy saving his life, Boris probably didn’t even register the cleaners cleaning up around him or the porters wheeling the patients in and out of the ICU. They would just have been part of the furniture. Why would a former Captain of School at Eton (they don’t stoop to having mere head boys), particularly one born to be Prime Minister, deign to notice cleaners and porters? The second U-turn seems much more significant, and not just because it was the second in two days. It suggests to me that already, in spite of his landslide election victory, Boris’s position as political lord of all he surveys is becoming shaky. The second U-turn was not, I suspect, a typically opportunistic maneuver on his part, it was almost certainly forced on him. For all the blaming of ‘the Science’ for how badly wrong the ‘battle’ against Covid-19 has gone, there must be influential members of the Conservative Party who appreciate that after more than 36,000 deaths (according to the official statistics, and over 50,000 more realistically) Boris’s amiable political persona as the bouncily energetic crowd-pleaser who loves to hear himself quoting Latin and can’t be bothered to brush his hair has reached its sell-by date.