Claims that 'health tourism has cost UK billions'


“Health tourism from the EU has cost the UK billions” is a claim in UK print and on television being used to persuade Brits to vote to leave the EU in June.

Medical tourism in the UK has again become a political football with some newspapers, politicians and campaigners for the UK leaving the EU making rather outrageous and outlandish claims not allowing facts to get in the way of their opinions.

The allegation is that the UK pays £723 million more a year to EU countries for treating its citizens than EU countries pay the UK for treating their citizens. But there are serious problems with that calculation.

The billions that the UK has paid other EU countries in recent years for health treatment is down to the fact that British tourists and pensioners are big users of their medical services. If the UK does quit the EU, as increasingly seems possible, almost all these payments would continue.

There is a two-way flow of funds. Britain pays EU countries when UK citizens use their health services, and vice versa. Spain, Ireland and France account for the bulk of the payments. EU law means that British travelling in the European Economic Area* (EEA) and Switzerland get emergency treatment on the same terms as a local. Where locals get healthcare for free, the UK government pays for this treatment. Similarly, when EU tourists get healthcare on the NHS, their government foots the bill.

A second scheme means that when Britons retire on a state pension in the EEA, the UK government pays for their healthcare. When Europeans retire in the UK, their governments pay their medical bills.

Neither of the above lets people travel to the UK deliberately to get free treatment.

If the UK does quit the EU, the government would probably continue both schemes, in which case nothing would change. Alternatively, it could terminate them. But that would cause anguish for Brits who have retired elsewhere in the EU, as well as those travelling abroad who need emergency treatment. It would also create another barrier between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Scrapping these arrangements wouldn’t save much, if anything. British pensioners living in Spain and France would still need medical care. If they could no longer get it for free where they were living, they might decide to return to the UK. Not only would that not save money; they would add to NHS overcrowding.

Yet again, the loser is the genuine medical tourism business in the UK that attracts ever-increasing numbers of paying patients to UK hospitals. Many will not be put off by the clamour, but a public and sustained outpouring of  misinformation against other nationalities, blaming them for domestic problems on healthcare will inevitably put some people off.



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