The immigration health surcharge fees paid by foreign healthcare workers – despite working in the NHS themselves – are being reviewed, Priti Patel has said.

The home secretary revealed she had bowed to pressure to look again at the fees, in the light of the “extraordinary contribution” made by medical staff from overseas during the coronavirus pandemic.

Until now, ministers had held firm that the surcharge – due to soar from £400 a year to £624 this October – is a fair way for all migrants to contribute to the likely cost of their NHS care.

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Because it is also paid by spouses and children, the total cost can reach a crippling £8,000 for a family of four on a five-year work permit, or with limited leave to remain in the UK.

At the daily Downing Street press conference, Ms Patel was asked whether it was right to “scrap” the surcharge for overseas NHS staff, “given they too are fighting this pandemic”.

She replied that it was “under review”, adding: “We are looking at everything, including visas and surcharge.

“We are looking at everything now in terms of what we can do to continue to support everyone on the frontline of the NHS.

“We are speaking about the healthcare professionals, the medics, the doctors and nurses and allied healthcare professionals who have come to the UK.”

The possible cut, or removal, of the surcharge was revealed as Ms Patel played down hopes of an early easing of the lockdown as the death toll in hospitals passed 20,000.

She called it a “deeply tragic and moving moment”, warning “we are not out of the woods yet” – and telling people to stick to social distancing instructions.

“The government has been abundantly clear about the five specific things that have to be satisfied – this is not optional – so that we can consider with the scientific advisers when it will be safe to adjust the current measures.

“Quite frankly that is not right now. It is clear that it is not right now.”

The health surcharge was hugely controversial, even before the current crisis. There is no right of deferral, or ability to pay annually. Instead, it has to be paid in advance for the entire duration of an applicant’s visa or residency permit.

Meanwhile, nurses and junior doctors in training have starting salaries of between £18,000 and £23,000.

They are already paying tax and national insurance, like British nationals, and are therefore being “charged twice” for NHS treatment, campaigners have protested.

Nevertheless, only last month, when he announced his Budget, chancellor Rishi Sunak said it was necessary to ensure that “what people get out, they also put in”.

Once the UK leaves the Brexit transition period – at the end of the year – the government insists it will be paid by all EU citizens, as well as those from the rest of the world.

Around one in every seven NHS workers is foreign-born – a dependence that has attracted growing attention as they have been on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus.

Dame Donna Kinnair, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said it would welcome a U-turn to exempt nurses from the surcharge.

“The current crisis only serves to highlight the unfairness of charging overseas nurses working in the UK for healthcare services,” she said.

The concession comes ahead of Boris Johnson’s expected return to work in Downing Street on Monday, raising Conservative hopes of an end to the refusal to discuss how the UK will escape the lockdown.

The prime minister is expected back, three weeks after being taken to hospital when his coronavirus symptoms worsened – where he needed oxygen in intensive care, to ensure he survived

Conservative backbenchers have laid bare their frustrations at ministers batting away calls to set out options for easing restrictions, claiming it would underline the ‘stay at home’ message.

On Saturday, Philip Hammond, the former Conservative chancellor, asked if such a plan should be “published now”, replied: “Yes, I think that is the next step.

“I understand the prime minister is going to be back in harness in Downing Street at the beginning of next week and I very much hope that will signal a clear step change.”

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