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Sun, 31 May 2020

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The Breakfast Briefing: U-turn if you absolutely have to, PLUS Priti Patel’s Covid quarantine plan

The Breakfast Briefing: U-turn if you absolutely have to, PLUS Priti Patel’s Covid quarantine plan

Number 10 had defended the health surcharge just hours before it was ditched for NHS staff.

4 min read

Your essential morning guide to what’s moving in Westminster from the PoliticsHome team

SW1 got very used to ministers being at the mercy of the backbenches during Theresa May’s shaky time at the top. But the fact that a government with an 80-strong majority was yesterday forced to ditch a contentious policy just hours after Number 10 doubled down in defending it is pretty extraordinary.
 
The U-turn on the health surcharge - meaning overseas workers in the NHS and care homes will no longer be asked to cough up an additional £400 fee to fund the health service - was, to use the proper jargon, screeching.
 
In the usual lunchtime back-and-forth with hacks, the PM’s spokesperson had a good go at defending the policy, amid mounting criticism from Conservative backbenchers and party grandees.

The charge, he told us, “has a direct impact on improving people’s lives and saving people’s lives”. It was part of a “very clear manifesto commitment made by the Government” to boost NHS funding (although there were no figures on how much of the £900m being bandied about was actually paid for by NHS and care staff themselves).

Of course, there’s strength in a government that listens to the concerns of its backbenchers, reads the moment and responds accordingly.

And, in perhaps the most surreal moment, Downing Street defended the fact that some NHS trusts spend their own money to cover the surcharge for staff who otherwise wouldn’t be able to come to the UK. “If NHS Trusts choose to do that that is of course a matter for them. But the money raised does go to the NHS.” Clear?
 
When the change of heart came later in the afternoon, it was pretty unequivocal - and clearly a move driven by the Prime Minister himself.

“The PM has asked the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care to remove NHS and care workers from the NHS surcharge as soon as possible,” the statement said. And, in one final, heroic attempt to make this look like it was all going to plan, Number 10 added: “As the PM said in the House of Commons, he has been thinking about this a great deal.”
 
Of course, there’s strength in a government that listens to the concerns of its backbenchers, reads the moment and responds accordingly.

But the move has undoubtedly offered an open goal for Labour’s Keir Starmer, whose party started the week demanding exactly this pledge and who made it one of the central planks of his PMQs outing on Wednesday. We’re a long, long way from a Labour recovery - but it’s exactly the kind of victory that rallies the troops and silences the critics.
 
Perhaps more worryingly for the PM, it’s shown that a government that came into office in a blaze of self-confidence can now be bent to the will of the Conservative backbenches if the pressure is applied in just the right way. That’s a place no Tory leader ever wants to find themselves in.
 
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING TODAY
 

The Government will unveil its plans for a 14-day quarantine of all international arrivals - in the teeth of opposition from Tory MPs as well as parts of the aviation industry. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told Sky this morning that Priti Patel will be taking the 5pm press conference to set out the measures. Yvette Cooper's Home Affairs Committee will be grilling experts on the plans at 9am.

The Scientific Group on Emergencies will publish the advice behind the Government’s decision to order a phased reopening of schools from June - a key demand of unions resisting the proposals.
 
Government testing chief Professor John Newton and Public Health England Professor Yvonne Doyle will face MPs on the science and technology committee at 9.30am.


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