The government confirmed that NHS car parking charges, waived in late March as the lockdown came into force, will resume as the coronavirus pandemic eases.
Although no timeline has been announced, and the decision itself has been called into question, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that free parking will continue for only “key patient groups and NHS staff in certain circumstances” once the pandemic subsides.
Labour MP Rachel Maskell submitted a written question on the issue on Friday (July 3), to which health minister Edward Argar responded, “The provision of free parking for National Health Service staff by NHS Trusts has not ended and nothing has changed since the announcement on 25 March. However, free parking for staff has only been made possible by support from local authorities and independent providers and this support cannot continue indefinitely.”
Chorus of criticism
The i newspaper led with the story today (July 8) that free car parking for NHS staff England may be eventually phased out, which was met with a chorus of criticism from trade unions, professional medical bodies, the Labour party and even disquiet among Tory ranks.
British Medical Association (BMA) chief of staff Alex Flynn tweeted, “From clap for carers, to clamp for carers the government needs to think again. Keep it free like Wales and most of Scotland.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth likewise highlighted the hypocrisy of clapping for carers while reintroducing car parking charges, tweeting, “Yesterday the Tories tried to blame care homes, today they take away free car parking for NHS staff.”
Meanwhile, Tory peer Baroness Nicky Morgan, a former cabinet minister, attempted to distance herself from the decision, telling Sky News that the reintroduction of parking charges was ‘something that will very much need to be looked at again’.
“I’m not aware of the decision and the parameters people are making the decisions under, but it does seem very strange given how hard our NHS and care workers have worked over the last few months that this decision has been taken,” she said.
Later today (July 8), Morgan sparked confusion on the issue, telling the BBC that ‘there was no foundation’ to the story that NHS car parking charges would resume despite the DHSC confirming that free parking charges would continue only for certain groups once the pandemic easing.
“We’re all reacting to a decision that’s not even on the table, as far as I’m aware,” she said.
“Car parking charges in hospitals is a hot potato and has been for a long time. There are always going to be tricky decisions that have to be taken in relation to budgets by a hospital trust, by the government and others, but I think reacting to a story – there is no foundation in it – is something I hope people are not going to be worrying about today.”
The mixed messages have suggested that the government may row back from their decision, in yet another U-turn similar to the U-turn it made on extending free school meals through the summer holidays following concerted public pressure.
Unite national officer for health Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe said that whenever the government makes an ultimate decision on car parking charges, it should make free car parking for NHS staff and patients in England permanent, as has been done in Wales and most of Scotland even before the pandemic.
“NHS staff, from nurses to doctors, paramedics to pharmacists, cleaners to porters, speech and language therapists to clinical psyschologists and many, many more have all worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic and have very literally saved lives while risking their own,” he said.
“Scrapping car parking charges for NHS staff in England was the very least the government could do to show their appreciation for their hard work – it is an unconscionable slap in the face for them to learn now that they will have the rug pulled underneath them as car parking charges are potentially set to be reintroduced,” he added. “Unite is also very concerned to learn that some trusts are planning to increase their already extortionate car parking charges once the government gives them to the go-ahead to resume charging – this is a callous, opportunistic move and must be stopped.”
“Unite has long called for NHS car parking charges in England to be scrapped permanently and we reiterate this call today,” Jarrett-Thorpe continued. “Health minister Edward Argar justified the possible reintroduction of parking charges last week by saying ‘support cannot continue indefinitely’. If this is the case then how have both Wales and Scotland scrapped NHS car parking charges long before this pandemic? If it is possible for Wales and Scotland then it is possible for England – all we need is the political will.”
By Hajera Blagg