‘When this paper reported a senior surgeon’s warning that health tourism could be costing the NHS “billions”‘, begins today’s leader in the Daily Mail on the government’s efforts to clamp down on treating foreign nationals. That’s one (rather cheeky) way of putting it. Another way is ‘When this newspaper reported a piece that appeared in The Spectator and made it a cover’. For our subscribers, it was that familiar feeling of déjà lu — when you read in the newspapers something you first saw in our pages. But the problem of NHS tourism, which Prof J Meirion Thomas exposed, is at last being addressed.
Dr Thomas’ original Spectator article appeared in February this year, saying Britain could not afford an International Health Service. The official figures then suggested health tourism hardly cost a thing, but in his experience as a cancer surgeon, he said he’d seen how people are wrongly categorised as residents and were costing the NHS ‘billions’. As he put it:
‘In 1948, when the NHS was created, the UK population was 49 million and almost exclusively indigenous. The exploitation described above could not have been foreseen. But now the UK population is 63 million, with freedom of mobility within the EU and with the world beyond. Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham and other British airports are large global hubs. We have one of the most advanced health services in the world with the latest technology and therapies freely available.’
Following this article, many of Thomas’ fellow doctors got in touch with their own examples of how the NHS is being abused by foreign visitors. He wrote a follow-up article for us sharing such stories. The most notable example was maternity tourism:
‘Foreign women often arrive in the UK in late pregnancy, often after detecting a complication. They come on a visitor’s visa and present to A&E while in labour. Often the patient refuses to pay, claiming that a childbirth qualifies as emergency care and therefore cannot be refused to anyone. In this way, the NHS can be used as the world’s maternity wing. If neonatal intensive care is necessary, the bills can run to tens of thousands of pounds — with little chance of recouping costs. There is much evidence of identity fraud. In every maternity unit, identifying the blood group of the mother is obligatory. Over time, patients have given a registered name, address and NHS number — but are found to have different blood groups from the one on record. This is conclusive proof of an identity being shared’
Lo and behold, the DoH’s report today states that ‘the use of maternity services by overseas visitors was identified as one of the greatest challenges to the NHS’, costing at least £70 million every year. The report also said that the NHS has ‘some of the most generous rules in the world’, again as Thomas said earlier this year.
It’s good to see his advice being taken, with a new strategy that will go down well ahead of next week’s debate on the Immigration Bill. If you want the best insight into what government policy is going to be in 12 months time, join The Spectator from just £1 a week here.Tags: health tourism, NHS, The Spectator, UK politics