Magazine article The Spectator

Tackling Health Tourism

Magazine article The Spectator

Tackling Health Tourism

Article excerpt

In February, an NHS surgeon came to The Spectator's offices to discuss a piece he felt it was time to write. He wanted to blow the whistle on health tourism. Professor J. Meirion Thomas knew he was taking a tough decision, given the hostile reaction of the doctors' unions and civil servants to anyone who makes the slightest criticism of the NHS. But the Francis Report into the Stafford Hospital scandal had just come out, reminding GPs of their 'statutory duty of candour'. The professor said that he would like to expose what he regarded as the systematic abuse of the NHS.

His Spectator article was read at the highest levels of government. At the time, the Department of Health insisted that there was nothing to see - that health tourism cost just £12 million, a trifling figure in relation to the gargantuan NHS budget. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, went on to commission an independent report which found differently. Non-British residents are each year receiving about £1.9 billion of free treatment for which by law they ought to be charged. Health tourism - people coming to Britain deliberately to use the NHS - accounts for between £70 and £300 million of this figure.

It is a disgrace that it has taken a surgeon to break ranks in order to provoke debate on the subject. The Department of Health is part of an orthodoxy which has consistently tried to deny that health tourism exists at all.

It has become a certainty in recent months that within hours of any politician uttering the words 'health tourism', Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of GPs, will pop up somewhere on the BBC denouncing fears that foreigners are abusing the NHS as scare-mongering and protesting that doctors should not have to act as 'border guards', even though nobody is suggesting that.

Even after this week's report, we have heard protestations that it doesn't really matter, because £2 billion is only 2 per cent of the NHS budget. But you can't waft away a public spending problem on the grounds that the amount of money being wasted is 2 per cent of the total. Budgets are made up of 2 per cent here, 2 per cent there. If you don't approach public spending with the assumption that every percentage point matters, you will rapidly end up with a national budget crisis.

As Mr Hunt explained, even the £500 million he hopes to recover in unpaid NHS bills would be enough to employ an extra 4,000 doctors. Those who complain it is inhumane for the NHS to try to collect money from foreign nationals for non-emergency treatment need to explain why it would be a bad idea for over-stretched hospitals to have these extra staff. …

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