The UK government has been accused of being “cheap” for its decision to charge Australians and New Zealanders a £200-a-year surcharge for the NHS if they stay longer than six months.
The new charge officially ends a reciprocal agreement between the countries, but critics have pointed out that it also erodes the old Commonwealth ties between them.
The immigration health surcharge, which officially applies to all non-European Union (EU) citizens, was introduced in Britain in 2015 and raised more than £100m in its first six months. Australian and New Zealand citizens were exempt, however, thanks to a reciprocal agreement between the countries and the UK, the Daily Mail has reported.
But less than a year on, the British government has chosen to drop its end of the bargain and charge Antipodean citizens a surcharge of £200, or £150 for those aged 18-30, when they apply for a visa to stay for more than six months. The charge, which will apply from April of this year, will be calculated on an annual basis, meaning that someone applying for a five year visa will have to fork out £1000 on top of their visa costs.
The New Zealand prime minister, John Key has spoken of his disappointment at the decision, saying: “I think we have had this relationship based on the history of our country and New Zealand being a British colony. I would have thought charging Kiwis £150 if they’re over there for a bit longer as a surcharge, over and above the national health system, is pretty cheap and not really in keeping with the history of the two countries.”
The change also comes after the British Government slashed tourist visas for Chinese visitors from £324 to £85 – less than half what Australians and New Zealanders pay. Meanwhile European Citizens will still not have to pay a penny, as they don’t need visas to live and work in the UK under European Union rules.
Shane Frith, a New Zealand entrepreneur who has lived in the UK for 12 years warned that the new surcharge risks further distancing the UK from its Commonwealth partners, saying: “This is a slap in the face for the nations that have stood by Britain in good times and bad. We are meant to have a special relationship and this weakens it.”
He added: “If Britain vote to remain in the EU, it will be the last hurrah for the Commonwealth. It will send a message to New Zealanders and Australians that Britain has chosen its continental pals and not its Commonwealth family.”
The move is part of a wider package introduced by the government to crack down on non-EU migration in an attempt to bring spiraling migration figures under control. From April, non-EU migrants will be removed from the country after five years unless they can prove they have met an earnings threshold of £35,000 a year. The government also plans to charge any firm hiring skilled workers from outside the EU a levy of £1000 a year.
On Sunday, Fairfax New Zealand columnist Stacey Kirk suggested that New Zealand should bring in the same surcharge as Brits make up a much larger proportion of the New Zealand population than vice versa.
According to the UK’s National Office for Statistics there are about 63,000 New Zealanders living in the UK – about 0.09 percent of the population – while Statistics New Zealand says there are 265,500 UK citizens living in New Zealand, making up 5.7 percent of the population.
“It’s a pittance for the UK, but the same policy applied here could add up to $115.2m to our cash-strapped health budget,” she wrote. “Besides that, there has to be a point where we stop rolling over.”
A spokesman for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that a review of the health agreements between her country and the UK was due to begin soon. “These negotiations have not yet started, so it is too soon to speculate on the potential impact,” she said.