“Health tourism from the EU has cost us billions”. That, at least, is what Gisela Stuart said on April 5. In fact, the Vote Leave chair has got things terribly mixed up. 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. What’s more, if we quit the EU, it’s doubtful these payments would drop.
There is a two-way flow of funds. Britain pays EU countries when our citizens use their health services, and vice versa. The figures provided by Stuart’s own organisation, Vote Leave, show how confused she is. It says 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. 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.
Neither of these programmes lets people travel to the UK deliberately to get free treatment.
If we quit the EU, we’d have two choices. Either we could try to continue these schemes, in which case nothing would change.
Alternatively, we could terminate them. But that would cause a lot of 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. That would hardly seem sensible given that relations would already be strained by Brexit.
What’s more, scrapping these arrangements wouldn’t save much, if anything. After all, 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 come back to the UK. Not only would we not save money; they would add to NHS overcrowding.
Vote Leave did not respond to requests for comment
* EU plus Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland
Edited by Hugo Dixon