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Theresa May refuses to "quantify" cost of "health tourism" as she panders to immigration fears

The Home Secretary glossed over the fact that "health tourism" costs just 0.01% of the NHS budget.

Theresa May speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Among the measures included in the government's new immigration bill, which is published today, is the introduction of a £200 charge on all temporary migrants, such as overseas students, to use the NHS and a requirement for GPs to check the migration status of new patients. 

Both policies are aimed at solving the alleged problem of "health tourism", whereby migrants travel to the UK to seek free healthcare, but how costly is this "abuse"? 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 to "health tourists". The cost of administrating the new system could well outweigh the savings (the chair of the Royal College of GPs, Clare Gerada, estimates that staff costs alone will amount to £500m), while also increasing public health problems such as TB by deterring temporary migrants from seeking treatment when they first fall ill. 

Challenged on this point on the Today programme this morning, Theresa May repeatedly refused to "quantify the problem", instead describing it as "a point of principle" and noting that the public believe "there is an issue out there". In other words, the government is making policy based on fears, rather than facts. 

A dose of sanity was provided by east London GP Paquita de Zulueta, who warned that the bill would make it "considerably harder for vulnerable migrants in considerable need to access healthcare" ("if they can't access primary care or they're too frightened to they'll wait until they're really ill," she said) and pointed out that "we're net exporters of patients". 

But to May, the woman who once warned that the Conservatives were seen as "the nasty party", all of this is irrelevant as where UKIP leads, the Tories follow.