UK

Immigrants 'To Be Charged For NHS' Says Jeremy Hunt, In Bid To Stop Health Tourism

03/07/2013 06:56 BST | Updated 03/07/2013 16:49 BST

Foreigners who come to the UK will be charged hundreds of pounds a year to access NHS treatment under new plans to ensure migrants "contribute towards the cost of their healthcare", health officials said.

But health professionals say it could lead to foreigners wandering the streets with infectious diseases, afraid of being charged.

Ministers will outline plans to introduce a levy on any students or foreign workers who come to the UK for more than half a year.

The fee, which is likely to be around £200 a year, will be an addition to the visa charge, officials said.

The cost will "ensure that migrants contribute towards the cost of their healthcare whilst not increasing red tape and administration for NHS professionals," a Department of Health spokesman said.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to announce a public consultation on the move tomorrow as part of a raft of changes to immigration laws.

Hunt 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."

He will also outline plans to end free access to GPs for short term visitors.

But the National AIDS Trust (NAT) said that the initiatives could risk the lives of people living with HIV and would also threaten the health of Britons.

Chief executive Deborah Jack said: "If introduced, these policies will endanger the lives of people living with HIV and threaten the health of our community.

"The proposals, if enforced, would undermine years of work to encourage marginalised at-risk groups to access HIV testing and treatment.

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"By limiting access to primary care for some migrants living in England we would cut off the only place many of them will get an HIV diagnosis - short of presenting at A&E many years after they were infected, once they are very seriously ill.

"We are calling on the Government not to limit universal primary care access to migrants living in England. If they go ahead they risk putting lives at risk and accelerating the spread of HIV in the general population."

The NHS bill for treating tourists, estimated to be up to £200 million, will also be tackled, Hunt will say.

The changes are part of a government-wide push to cut down on abuse of British services but doctors warned they feared being turned into a "form of immigration control".

Earlier this year Prime Minister David Cameron said that immigrants cannot expect "something for nothing" in the UK.

Labour's shadow health minister Liz Kendall MP said: "In its three years in power the Government has a poor record on announcing policies that sound good but prove to be completely unworkable.

"We will have many questions to ask about the details when they are published but the key tests for their proposals are: can they be properly enforced and will they save more money than they cost to put in place?

"The public and NHS staff must be confident that any new measures are about getting taxpayers a better deal and ensuring fairness, not playing politics with our NHS."

Clare Gerada, who chairs the Council of the Royal College of General Practitioners, issued a stark warning that the measures posed a public health risk and could end up costing the taxpayer more.

Immigrants with highly infectious conditions could end up "wandering around for fear of being charged" or going to emergency units that were far more expensive to run than doctors' surgeries, she said.

"What we don't want to do is put people at risk ... not just the migrants but also us," she told BBC Radio 4's Today.

"People use the NHS if they've got infections and we certainly don't want to have people wandering around for fear of being charged at the GP surgery."

She added: "At the moment we are fairly accessible and I think it is important to keep it that way.

"I don't think we should be turning the GP surgery into a border agency. I think we should be making sure that people who do feel that they are ill can come and access us because we certainly don't want people who have got TB or HIV or any other infectious disease, or in fact anybody that believes themselves to be ill, to be frightened of seeing a GP for fear of being charged."

Most immigrants were young and used the NHS less than British people, she said, claiming the Government had failed to "find the facts" about the true level of the costs.

"It is a very rushed consultation. Whatever happens 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.

"We probably owe that sort of money to overseas health services in a sort of quid pro quo arrangement anyway."

But Hunt said foreign patients would not be refused treatment in emergency cases.

He told BBC Breakfast: "We don't want any doctors or any hospitals ever to turn people away who need help in an emergency.

"We want to make sure we have a non-bureaucratic system in place so that where someone should be paying for their care, we actually do charge them and we do collect the money later.

"That's what most other countries manage. We are the most generous country in the world when it comes to that kind of thing."