New Internationalist

My brush with the ‘health tourism’ media mafia

Doctor's hands with stethoscope
Migrants will have to wait for up to a year before being able to seek hospital treatment Alex E. Proimos, under a CC License

Lock up your medicines, the health tourists are coming! In a typically knee-jerk reaction to the Eastleigh by-election in the South East of England, the coalition government is – if you believe the media reports – considering a ‘profound shake-up’ of access to healthcare whereby migrants will have to wait for up to a year before being able to seek hospital treatment.

I was asked to appear on LBC Radio to discuss these developments in a debate hosted by shock jock Nick Ferrari, who is billed as ‘the man all politicians fear’. My research told me that Ferrari’s career highlights range from being the launch editor of Sky News to bringing to our screens topless darts and weather forecasts featuring a dwarf on a trampoline. More seriously, he’d also been reprimanded by the broadcasting standards commission for encouraging racism against asylum seekers.

My opponent would be a Dr Robert Lefever, a retired GP and regular Daily Mail contributor, who’d written articles with headlines such as: ‘If we don’t halt health tourism, our whole economy will bleed to death.’

This would be interesting.

Dr Lefever was actually mild mannered but typically vague about the ubiquity of so-called health tourism. When asked if it was possible to put a figure on how much it costs the British economy, he came back with: ‘I don’t think it is really, but many millions.’

Despite his hazy and subjective ramblings, Lefever was never interrupted and was referred to respectfully as ‘doctor’ throughout.

Then it was my turn. The air turned cooler as Ferrari’s sights honed in.

To be fair, I was able to get across my main point that health tourism being rampant in Britain is a myth. I was allowed to say less than two per cent of the service users at the London clinic we run to help vulnerable migrants had left their country because of health reasons and that almost half had no knowledge of the NHS or their right to healthcare. The real reasons people leave their country, of course, are to find work, to study, to flee persecution, among other reasons, not usually for free healthcare.

Then Ferrari threw in this curveball: ‘But if an elderly person, who’s paid tax his or her entire life, is not getting NHS care because someone who’s been here for half an hour is – that’s not fair is it?’

I wanted to say that this was a ridiculous straw-man scenario but as I began talking, Ferrari cut in: ‘But that’s not fair is it?’ His bluntness surprised me but I ploughed through and tried to make a point about the NHS constitution making it clear that healthcare should be available to all, regardless of status or ability to pay and…

‘But we can’t afford it, we CANNOT afford it,’ yells Ferrari.

This was not going quite as hoped.

I soldiered on, saying that early detection of illness among migrants actually saves money in the long run as it often precludes the need for much more expensive hospital treatment down the line. I mentioned that the idea that Britain is somehow unique in offering healthcare access to undocumented migrants is untrue as many other European countries offer similar access and…

‘You’re talking about migrants again, you’re obviously not listening,’ said Ferrari.

I was invited on to the show as the spokesperson for a charity that helps vulnerable migrants and now I was being told not to talk about vulnerable migrants. I made one last plea for reason about the scale of so-called ‘health tourism’ being nowhere near the worrying levels suggested by the likes of Dr Lefever, to which Ferrari replied that he has absolutely no doubt that health tourism exists and that his audience would prove it for him.

‘For those out there who have visited hospitals, fortunately I don’t too much – I don’t know about Mr Harvey – why don’t YOU tell ME the truth about health tourism,’ he said, cutting me off.

I didn’t feel the need tune back in to hear the various truths of the people who visit hospitals.

I was instead left to contemplate what had just happened and why.

Nick Harvey is a spokesperson for Doctors of the World, UK.

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