Health tourism clampdown 'puts public at risk,' claims think-tank

Thousands of immigrants do not seek the care they need because they fear it will affect their status or expose them to NHS fees
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The British public is at increased risk from infectious diseases – including Ebola – because NHS charges and anti-immigration rhetoric are discouraging vulnerable migrants from seeking healthcare, a think-tank has warned.

Thousands do not seek the care they need because they fear it will affect their immigration status or expose them to NHS fees, the cross-party group Demos said.

In a report to be published tomorrow, it warns that one in six of the UK's estimated population of 580,000 undocumented migrants avoids seeing a GP. As a result, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and, potentially, Ebola could be going undiagnosed, heightening the risk of further spread.

Staff at a special London clinic for migrants set up by the international charity Doctors of the World, said that mothers were not seeking support during pregnancy, and cancer patients are dying without access to treatment.

Everyone in the UK is entitled to see a GP, regardless of their immigration status. But the Government has set out plans for migrants to be charged for use of A&E services, and for people from outside the EU to be charged 150 per cent of the NHS cost of other treatments.

The measures are a response to so-called "health tourism", said to cost the NHS up to £80m per year. The Government hopes to recoup £500m per year from foreign visitors and migrants.

But in its report, Demos said: "It would be short-sighted to allow the important task of protecting the NHS from fraud to expose the British public to increased risks stemming from communicable disease."

"The current Ebola outbreak puts this issue in extremely sharp focus," says the report's author, Max Wind-Cowie.

The Department of Health said: "The NHS is there to care and support people who are unwell, but we must ensure it is funded fairly. We are working closely with representatives of vulnerable groups to make sure migrants know that urgent treatment will always be provided regardless of their ability to pay."

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