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.

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. 

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.