DOING the honourable thing is always the right thing to do; as Boris Johnson has discovered.

Tonight, like thousands of others, the Prime Minister once again applauded the heroes of the NHS and care system, who have, during the coronavirus pandemic, put their own lives on the line to save others.

Of course, as he himself readily acknowledged in the Commons on Wednesday, he was one of the people whose lives the “amazing NHS staff” had pulled back from the brink.

Mr Johnson has also praised the bravery of staff in care homes up and down the land, who have equally been on the frontline battling against the ravages of the monster virus.

But as the PM clapped away he would have been aware that his speedy volteface on the Immigration Health Surcharge had removed a string of screaming front page headlines about a two-faced approach; praising low-paid frontline workers on the one hand, while stinging them for cash, for the very public service they help provide, on the other.

And there was the little matter, as opposition to the surcharge built up on both sides of the House, that he could have been looking at a defeat on his Immigration Bill, despite the Tories’ 80-seat majority.

The surcharge is levied on migrants coming to Britain from outside the European Economic Area ie the EU, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. They have to pay £400 a year, rising to £625 in October, whether they use the NHS or not. Parents are also expected to pay £470 a year for each dependent child. So, the numbers could tot up for a family.

Doctors, nurses and paramedics have been granted a one-year exemption from the charge. But low-paid hospital porters and cleaners as well as care home staff have not. An understandable furore naturally ensued.

When on Wednesday at PMQs Mr Johnson defended his decision to stick by not scrapping the surcharge, he looked visibly uncomfortable, sheepish even; his mouth was saying one thing but his brain was clearly thinking another.

In his response to a double Labour and SNP attack, Mr Johnson told MPs he fully recognised the difficulties faced by “our amazing NHS staff,” including those who came from abroad.

However, he insisted the Government had to look at the “realities” and suggested the country could not afford to lose the £900 million the surcharge had brought into the NHS.

But this was disingenuous; unacceptable at the best of times and disgraceful at the worst.

Tory backbencher Sir Roger Gale pointed out £900m was in fact the total figure over four years and “not the amount actually received annually from health and care service-employed immigrants”.

The party grandee, a former Tory Vice-Chairman, piped up to warn his party leader that not to waive the current surcharge "would rightly be perceived as mean-spirited, doctrinaire and petty".

Fellow Conservative MP William Wragg echoed the point, saying: "Now is the time for a generosity of spirit towards those who have done so much good," while Lord Patten, the wily former Conservative Chairman, opened up both barrels and branded the PM’s refusal to act “appalling” and “immoral”.

But Downing St persisted.

The money, the PM’s spokesman explained, was important revenue, which went to all four health services across the UK and had a “direct impact” on improving people’s lives.

Last night, however, a big beast threw his weight behind the campaign and was possibly the last straw that tipped Mr Johnson into changing tack.

Jeremy Hunt, who as the UK Government Health Secretary introduced the surcharge, said: “Given the sacrifices we’ve seen during the coronavirus pandemic, low-paid frontline health and care workers need to be thought about differently and one of the ways we could do this is by looking at that surcharge. So, I very much hope the Government will do something.”

The PM’s cave-in would have been a relief to his colleague Matt Hancock as it came just 20 minutes before the Health Secretary for England appeared at the daily Downing St press conference and would have had to defend the indefensible.

Indeed, when Mr H was asked the reason for the screeching U-turn, he failed to give a direct answer.

Downing St later explained Mr Johnson had been “thinking about this a great deal" and as a "personal beneficiary of carers from abroad" he understood the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff. In other words, his conscience had been pricked.

"The purpose of the NHS surcharge is to benefit the NHS, help to care for the sick and save lives. NHS and care workers from abroad who are granted visas are doing this already by the fantastic contribution which they make," a No 10 spokesman added.

Senior opposition leaders welcomed the change of Mr Johnson's heart; Sir Keir Starmer described it as a "victory for common decency".

Meanwhile, Sir Roger after the policy shift, rallied round his party leader, saying: "There will, of course, be those who will claim this as 'another U-turn'. Personally, I believe that politically courageous and sensible politicians have the ability to revisit positions and to put something right if it has gone wrong."

Earlier this week, UK ministers bowed to pressure by reversing a decision to allow families of overseas NHS care workers and cleaners who have died on the Covid-19 frontline to stay in the UK.

By scrapping the surcharge for foreign frontline workers Mr Johnson has performed two U-turns in two days. His hero, Margaret Thatcher might be turning in her grave, but it was, of course, the honourable thing to do.