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Why Hunt's crackdown on "health tourism" could cost more than it saves

"Health tourism" currently costs £12m, just 0.01 per cent of the NHS budget. The new crackdown could cost far more.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jeremy Hunt is spending this morning discussing the government's plan to charge non-EU migrants a fee of at least £200 a year to access the NHS. He said: "We need to ensure that those residing or visiting the UK are contributing to the system in the same way as British taxpayers, and ensure we do as much as possible to target illegal migration. We have been clear that we are a national health service - not an international health service - and I am determined to wipe out abuse in the system. The NHS is a national treasure and we need to work with the entire health system to develop plans and make sure it is sustainable for years to come." The government is also planning to end free access to GPs for those from outside the EU who stay for less than six months. 

For entirely political reasons (the rise of a certain europhobic party may have something to do with it), the problem of "health tourism" has been much exaggerated. In 2011-12, the NHS officially spent £33m on treating foreign nationals, £21m of which was recovered. This means that just £12m, or 0.01 per cent of the health service's £109bn annual budget, was lost. In March, when David Cameron raised the issue in his speech on immigration, Hunt claimed that the true figure was £200m but produced no evidence to support his claim. But even if we accept the Health Secretary's estimate, this figure accounts for just 0.18 per cent of the NHS budget and that's before we take into account the savings made from British nationals using foreign health services and the administrative cost of the new "crackdown".

On the Today programme this morning, Hunt chose not to use the £200m figure, instead conceding: "the truth is we don't know the number". He added: "if you take the lowest number, which is the £12m that we don't collect, that alone is around 2,000 hip operations". But could Hunt's plans end up costing more than they save? The chair of the Royal College of GPs, Clare Gerada, estimates that staff costs alone will amount to £500m, more than 40 times the £12m currently lost to "health tourism". Gerada also warned that immigrants with infectious conditions, such as TB, could end up "wandering around for fear of being charged" or going to more expensive emergency units, which could cost more. "We need to make sure that what comes out the other end is sensible, proportionate and fair and doesn't cost us all much more money and put us at much more risk than the current situation which is one that, even at the worst estimates, is a tiny proportion of NHS costs," she said.

Hunt insisted that the government's consultation would take all of these issues into account, but his clear inclination to impose new curbs on foreigners won't assuage fears that the Tories are once again putting politics before policy.