Abuse of the NHS is not the scourge it seems

The number thought to be misusing the service has been grossly overestimated

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Judging by the furore surrounding so-called health tourism, it might be reasonable to conclude that foreign visitors are flocking to Britain in their droves in order to use the NHS. And so they are. Except that the latest research suggests that – contrary to the received wisdom on the subject – the vast majority are paying their way.

The spectre of widespread exploitation of our free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare was invoked once again this week. On Tuesday afternoon, MPs were due to discuss an immigration Bill which includes plans to charge temporary migrants an NHS surcharge. Conveniently, research was published on Tuesday morning putting a £2bn price tag on healthcare for foreigners and suggesting that harder-nosed bill-chasing could bring in £500m more than the sum already recouped.

It need hardly be said that the NHS should pursue with all assiduity monies that are owed for its services. But the implication that abuse of the health service is on such a scale as to justify such breathless attention, or that resolution of the problem would make a meaningful impact on the finances of an organisation with an annual budget of £109bn, is just the meaner kind of politics.

Which is even more reason to applaud a study, published today by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of York, which goes some way to redressing the balance. Not only is it evident that Britain is, in fact, a net exporter of patients. It is also clear that the number of people coming here with the intention of using the NHS – and paying for it – far outstrips the number estimated to be misusing the service.

Rather than suspiciously sucking our collective teeth, we should be welcoming such visitors with open arms. Like our universities, our hospitals are globally renowned. Let’s make the most of them.

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