The Spectator’s editorial proclaims its own role in pushing “Health Tourism” up the political agenda:
In February, an NHS surgeon came to The Spectatorâ€™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 doctorsâ€™ 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 â€˜statutory duty of candourâ€™. 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 â€” that health tourism cost just Â£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 Â£1.9 billion of free treatment for which by law they ought to be charged. Health tourism â€” people coming to Britain deliberately to use the NHS â€” accounts for between Â£70 and Â£300 million of this figure.
It concludes by explicitly calling for an ID card system to prevent “Health Tourism”:
This summer Jeremy Hunt announced a Â£200 charge for migrants to access the NHS. This week he has gone further and promised a centralised system for collecting money owed to the NHS. These measures are a start, but they will not stop health tourists from falsely claiming to be ordinarily resident in this country. For this, there has to be some kind of card or database to establish entitlement. In the short term the NHS could use National Insurance numbers, which are issued after careful checks on everyone â€” foreign national or British â€” who wants to earn money here.
However, the Observer’s editorial the following day casts doubt on the Spectator’s “Health Tourism” claims:
Within a day, however, evidence from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of York, quoting research commissioned by the government itself, showed that, contrary to the health secretary’s assertions, twice as may foreign visitors pay to use the NHS as exploit free health care, while the UK is a net exporter of patients seeking treatment. Again, the government’s own research indicates that far from costing the sum suggested by Hunt, only between 5,000 and 20,000 people could be reasonably labelled as health tourists at a more modest cost of Â£60m to Â£80m.
The misinformation did what effective propaganda frequently does; it created a mythical enemy of significant force. Both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph claimed “an EU study has found 600,000 unemployed migrants are living in Britain at a cost of Â£1.5bn to the NHS alone”. As MP Douglas Carswell put it, “a wave of benefit migrantsâ€¦ a tsunami of economic refugees” are causing a huge burden on the NHS. The indefatigable Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Social and Economic Research, efficiently took the claims apart, reiterating that the evidence shows EU migrants, like migrants in general, on average, pay in more than they take out. But the damage has been done. Hunt’s “facts” will have a life for far longer than the truth.
The referenced York/LSHTM paper is available here. Jonathan Portes comments are on his blog.