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Previous figures estimated £20m to £200m of NHS funds went on touristsBut the first comprehensive report of health tourism far exceeds that figure and warns Britain has ‘some of most generous rules in the world’It estimates £388m goes on foreign patients wrongly given free treatmentA further £300m is used by tourists who travel to take advantage of NHSHome Office plans £150 levy on foreign students and £200 on migrants

Foreign visitors and short-term migrants cost the NHS £2billion a year, an official report warns today.

The first comprehensive assessment of ‘health tourism’ says the true cost to taxpayers is up to 100 times bigger than some estimates.

It concluded the Health Service has ‘some of the most generous rules in the world’. And it even found evidence of relatives of migrants taking advantage of visits to Britain to have free treatment.

The bill was put at between £1.9billion and £2billion  – with only around 16 per cent of the money clawed back.

The Government said it would be ‘impractical or inappropriate’ to charge in full some patients, such as students or those with infectious diseases.

However Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt hopes to recover up to £500million a year, arguing Britain cannot afford an ‘international health service’.

The study estimates that £388million goes on foreign patients who should pay for their care but are never charged. 

Health tourists – those who specifically travel to the UK for treatment – cost up to £300million more.

The Home Office plans a new annual levy of £150 on foreign students and £200 on temporary migrants. The surcharge is expected to generate £200million.


Today’s findings will prove highly controversial – and are likely to be hotly disputed by the Left-wing medical establishment.

Labour suggested earlier this year that the Government was ‘xenophobic’ for proposing charges for more temporary visitors and migrants.

The situation is complex when it comes to deciding in practice who is and who is not eligible for free NHS hospital treatment. Data on migrants in the UK is limited, and that which has previously been compiled is of very poor quality.

The Government admits that today’s twin reports on the scale of the problem are, by definition, based on incomplete information and a series of assumptions and must be treated with some caution.

The documents concede that the definition of ‘health tourists’ can vary widely, applying to people who come here deliberately to obtain free healthcare, and others who are simply frequent visitors who register with GPs.

Researchers conducted telephone interviews with 36 senior officials at a cross-section of NHS trusts, and interviews with nine Border Force and immigration enforcement officers based at five major airports.  Seven trusts involved the study were visited and a range of staff, from clinicians through to front line staff, were interviewed face-to-face.

To collect data about the number of migrants and overseas visitors in a more consistent way; a ‘diary’ was distributed to NHS staff taking part in the study inviting them to keep a record of all patients brought to their attention over a two-week period.

Mr Hunt said: ‘Having a universal health service free at the point of use rightly makes us the envy of the world, but we must make sure the system is fair to the hardworking British taxpayers who fund it.

‘It’s time for action to ensure the NHS is a national health service – not an international one. With the NHS already under pressure from an ageing population, it cannot be right that large amounts of taxpayers’ money is being lost through treating people who should be paying from foreign countries.’

Ministers have appointed Sir Keith Pearson, former chief of the NHS Confederation, as an adviser on ‘visitor and migrant cost recovery’. He will bring in measures to identify those who should pay and find ways of making them do so.


Estimates of the cost of ‘health tourism’ have varied from £20million to £200million, sparking much political controversy.

Kailash Chand, of the British Medical Association, insisted earlier this year: ‘Believe me, there is little evidence that health tourism is a significant burden on the NHS. The £40million allegedly written off over the last four years by hospitals in England and Wales is approximately 0.01 per cent of the NHS budget over the period.’

Diane Abbott, then a Labour health spokesman, suggested charging foreigners for care was ‘xenophobic’ and Clare Gerada of the Royal College of GPs said: ‘It is important we do not overestimate the problem.’

But even if only 75 per cent of the £500million target is recovered, it would pay the salaries of almost 4,000 doctors.

Free care is offered to temporary visitors and students, unlike in Spain, where students must pay £50 a month. Australia charges £260 a year for restricted private health insurance for students. The Home Office’s Immigration Bill will create the powers to increase the number of migrants who will have to pay to access healthcare.

Labour pointed out that the figures from the Department of Health were based on ‘incomplete data, sometimes of varying quality, and a large number of assumptions’.

Andy Burnham, Opposition health spokesman, said: ‘We are in favour of improving the recovery of costs from people with no entitlement to NHS treatment.

‘But it’s hard not to conclude that this announcement is more about spin than substance. The Government’s own report undermines their headline-grabbing figures, admitting they are based on old and incomplete data.

‘Instead of grandstanding, the government need to focus on delivering practical changes. Labour would not support changes that make doctors and nurses surrogate immigration officials.’

Earlier this year, the Mail highlighted a warning from a consultant of the ‘massive and escalating problem’ of foreigners travelling to Britain to exploit the NHS.

Professor J Meirion Thomas, of The Royal Marsden hospital in London, suggested in an article for the Spectator magazine that expectant mothers were arriving in this country just to give birth, while others are flying here for cancer, HIV, kidney and infertility treatment and leaving without paying.

The Government estimates that in hospitals alone fewer than 50 per cent of chargeable foreign nationals are identified.

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