Health tourism: propaganda and facts

The Observer:

Currently the coalition, on several fronts, stands accused of manipulating statistics in a way which undermines trust in government. This can serve to deflect criticism of its own failings on to sections of society allegedly milking the system. Last week, for instance, an official report announced that the NHS is spending up to £2bn a year on foreign visitors and short-term migrants. “Health tourists” arriving in the UK to take advantage of the NHS before departing again, supposedly spend £300m of that figure.Jeremy Hunt, the health minister, said we couldn’t afford “an international health service”. In hospitals alone, we were told, fewer than 50% of chargeable foreign nationals are identified. That means that the “foreign”-looking person sitting next to you in accident and emergency may not be paying his or her way; suspicion rules, hostility is fostered.

Within a day, however, evidence from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of York, quoting research commissioned by the government itself, showed that, contrary to the health secretary’s assertions, twice as may foreign visitors pay to use the NHS as exploit free health care, while the UK is a net exporter of patients seeking treatment. Again, the government’s own research indicates that far from costing the sum suggested by Hunt, only between 5,000 and 20,000 people could be reasonably labelled as health tourists at a more modest cost of £60m to £80m.

The misinformation did what effective propaganda frequently does; it created a mythical enemy of significant force. Both the Daily Mail and theDaily Telegraph claimed “an EU study has found 600,000 unemployed migrants are living in Britain at a cost of £1.5bn to the NHS alone”. As MP Douglas Carswell put it, “a wave of benefit migrants… a tsunami of economic refugees” are causing a huge burden on the NHS. The indefatigable Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Social and Economic Research, efficiently took the claims apart, reiterating that the evidence shows EU migrants, like migrants in general, on average, pay in more than they take out. But the damage has been done. Hunt’s “facts” will have a life for far longer than the truth.

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