Speaking in the House of Commons on 20 May, prime minister Boris Johnson told MPs: '181 NHS and 131 social care workers' deaths have sadly been reported involving COVID-19. I know the thoughts of the whole house are with their families and friends.'
But the prime minister insisted that the 'immigration health surcharge' - a £400 annual fee charged to people coming into the UK from outside the EU to work or study - was the 'right way forward'.
The fee, set to rise to £624 from October and to be levied from thousands of EU workers in addition to those from outside the EU once Brexit goes ahead at the end of the year, has been slammed as 'unfair and illogical' by the BMA.
BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said it 'beggars belief' that staff risking their lives working in the NHS and social care were being charged twice to use the service they themselves were working for.
He said: 'These staff are also already paying tax and national insurance like everybody else - meaning they are being charged twice for NHS treatment.'
Data from the office for national statistics suggest more than half a million staff from outside the EU are being penalised by the levy - with many facing bills for thousands of pounds over the course of a five-year work visa if they have a partner or dependants, for whom the fee must also be paid.
The BMA has welcomed an amendment to the Immigration Bill currently going through parliament tabled by the Labour party - which would scrap the NHS surcharge for health and care staff.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer challenged Mr Johnson at prime minister's questions on Wednesday. He said: 'Every Thursday we go out and clap for our carers. Many of them are risking their lives for the sake of all of us.
'Does the prime minister think it’s right that care workers coming from abroad and working on our frontline should have to pay a surcharge of hundreds – sometimes thousands of pounds – to use the NHS themselves?'
Mr Johnson replied: 'I understand the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff and I have been the personal beneficiary of people who have come from abroad and frankly saved my life.
'On the other hand we must look at the realities, this is a great national service and it needs funding and those contributions help us to raise about £900m and it is very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternatives. So with respect I do think that is the right way forward.'
Dr Nagpaul condemned the government's stance: 'The immigration health surcharge is unfair, illogical and penalises hardworking international staff for dedicating their lives to NHS patients.
'The BMA has consistently said that all healthcare workers should be exempt from paying the charge – and this is more important now than ever. At a time when skilled international doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are risking their lives in the fight against COVID-19 – and most tragically, in some cases dying on the frontline – it beggars belief that they are still being charged to use the very service they are working for.
'We continue to urge the government to scrap the charge for healthcare workers and welcome the Labour leader’s proposed amendment to the Immigration Bill.
'In the last two months we’ve seen a huge outpouring of support for our frontline staff, including those talented colleagues who have come to work here from overseas, and I’m sure they would be dismayed to find that the government is continuing to penalise them with this absurd fee during the crisis.'