British tourists to European countries could be left without medical cover while on holiday in the event of a no-deal Brexit, health ministers have admitted.
The Liberal Democrats, who are pushing for a second referendum, put pressure on the government to come clean about the fact it has not secured any bilateral health agreements with EU member states if the UK crashes out without a deal next month.
Tom Brake, the party’s Brexit spokesperson, wrote to health minister Stephen Hammond about the issue, who could not confirm any agreements have been made to ensure British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK would continue to have the same access to medical cover.
In the response, Hammond could only say that the UK and Irish governments have “firm intentions to maintain the Common Travel Area and to protect the associated reciprocal rights”.
Brake told HuffPost UK: “In a no-deal scenario, it is now disturbingly likely that UK citizens will have no medical cover in most, if not all, of the EU countries.
“With many people already having booked travel to the EU for after 29 March, we need urgent clarification from the government of what action UK travellers need to take, including whether they should be taking out expensive travel insurance.
“This is particularly worrying as most of the large travel insurance firms are not able to confirm whether their insurance will be valid in the case of no-deal.
“Conservative Ministers do not need to hold British travellers at ransom. They can instead take no-deal off the table and give the public the final say with a People’s Vote so that we can get out of this mess once and for all.”
British tourists can currently apply for a European Health Insurance Card, which gives them the right to access state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in another European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland.
But the NHS website warns this is likely to change after March 29, when the UK is set to formally exit the bloc.
The revelation will add further woes to UK citizens intending to travel across the EU this summer after last month several leading travel insurance firms were unable to guarantee cover in the event of disruption caused by a no-deal Brexit.
After the government told travellers to check directly with their insurance companies about cover in the event of no-deal, the Lib Dems contacted seven of the UK’s largest firms posing as a mystery shopper.
Just two of the companies could confirm insurance would be paid out as normal. Another two said travellers would not be covered at all, and the remaining three were unsure about what would happen.
And on Thursday, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright admitted the government could not guarantee that mobile phone users would avoid the reintroduction of data roaming charges should the UK crash out of the EU next month.
Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, declared this would be mean millions of British holidaymakers face a “Tory tourist tax” under a no-deal Brexit.
He said: “This is how holidaymakers have been hit by Brexit chaos: one, the value of the pound has plummeted – increasing the cost of family holidays; two, we’re going to have to pay for visas to the EU; three, we’re going to be hit by a Brexit bill to use our mobile abroad.
“If he doesn’t want to go down in history as the minister for the Tory triple whammy tourist tax, I suggest he takes a different course.”
In his letter to Brake, Hammond said the government wanted to secure reciprocal arrangements bilaterally with EU member states in a no-deal scenario, so “that no-one faces sudden changes to how they obtain healthcare”.
He added: ”The United Kingdom and Irish governments have both set out their firm intention to maintain the Common Travel Area and to protect the associated reciprocal rights enjoyed by UK and Irish nationals when in each other’s state, including access to healthcare services, whatever the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Bilateral work with Ireland in this area is at an advanced stage.
“The UK has approached and is in ongoing discussions with other member states about protecting access to healthcare bilaterally, through reciprocal arrangements.”