Jeremy Hunt admits Brexit could mean the end of free medical treatment for travellers to the EU

'It’s not possible to predict the outcome of the negotiations', the Health Secretary told MPs who raised questions about the future of the EHIC card

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 25 January 2017 12:13
Jeremy Hunt admits Brexit could mean the end of the EHIC card

British citizens may lose their right to free or subsidised medical treatment when they visit the EU after Brexit, the Health Secretary has admitted.

Jeremy Hunt told MPs he could give no guarantees that the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) will survive EU withdrawal.

Giving evidence to a Commons committee, Mr Hunt agreed that the card was “a very positive thing” but warned any decision on its future must await the final Brexit deal.

The Department of Health would be “closely involved” in deciding priorities for those talks, but the Government as a whole would decide its “red lines”, he said.

Heidi Alexander, a former Labour health spokeswoman, described the cards as “one of the most tangible benefits” from EU membership.

She raised the prospect of the Government having to strike different agreements with the 27 other EU members to deliver the same benefits.

Mr Hunt replied: “I hope not, because – as we have made clear – what we seek is the closest possible arrangement, partnership with other countries of the European Union, on the basis of co-operation.

“It’s perfectly possible to agree the continuation of reciprocal healthcare rights as they currently exist – but it’s not possible to predict the outcome of the negotiations.”

His admission comes after Theresa May acknowledged British citizens may have to pay to visit the EU after Brexit under a planned visa-waiver scheme.

An EHIC gives British citizens the right to state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in another EU or European Economic Area (EEA) country.

It covers treatment that is “medically necessary” on the same basis as enjoyed by a resident of that country, so either free or at a reduced cost.

Pre-existing medical conditions and routine maternity care are also covered, provided someone has not travelled specifically to give birth or seek treatment.

Without the cards, it is feared that the cost of travel insurance will rise as insurers find themselves liable for medical treatment that is currently free of charge.

Figures released last year suggested UK travellers in Europe had saved around £1.2bn since the EHIC scheme began in 2006. Around 30m cards are currently in circulation.

Mr Hunt also came under fire for suggesting the European Medicines Agency is likely to move its office from London to elsewhere in Europe.

MPs were told the UK would seek a “relationship” with the EMA after Brexit, but the Health Secretary did not say if the Government would seek continued membership.

Norman Lamb, the Lib Dems’ health spokesperson and a supporter of the pro-EU Open Britain campaign, said: “If true, this would mean 900 high quality British jobs being lost – a real blow.

“Withdrawing from the EMA altogether could cause significant problems for the pharmaceutical industry and our NHS.

“Drugs companies would find themselves tangled up in red tape, making treatments more expensive for our NHS and for patients. It could also delay access to new drugs in the UK.”

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