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.

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. 

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.