As usual, the Tories are scapegoating foreigners to distract from their own failures
Jeremy Hunt’s obsession with ‘health tourism’ would be laughable if it weren’t so sinister.
Today, the health secretary unveils yet another strategy to tackle the problem which isn’t really that much of a problem at all. He claims that £500m can be recovered by demanding patients’ passports and birth certificates before they arrive, and presenting them with a bedside card reader before they leave.
There’s little reason to believe this latest campaign will be effective. The Public Accounts Committee describes the government’s approach up to now as ‘chaotic’ and its chair, Meg Hillier, does not believe that simply mandating hospitals to recover funds will work. Given the Tories’ derisory record on hitting their own arbitrary targets, it’s highly unlikely that the promised £500m will materialise by the middle of this parliament.
But the more important point is this: the cost of so-called ‘health tourism’ is a negligible factor in the overall funding crisis facing the NHS — about 0.3 per cent of the overall budget — yet has consistently received vast amounts of attention from the Conservatives.
This serves their interests in two ways:
First, it forms a part of the ‘tough on immigration’ line that has come to define the Tories in the last six years, and has seen border politics creep from the Home Office and into every area of British life — health, education, social security, housing — creating a hostile environment for migrants, and requiring ordinary citizens to police migration.
Second, this relentless focus on health tourism is a useful distraction from the real crisis consuming the NHS: a record-breaking deficit, severe overcrowding, spiralling waiting lists and deeply demoralised staff. Across policy areas, the government has deliberately and cynically redirected blame for failing public services, preferring to scapegoat the vulnerable rather than make desperately needed investments.
As Shyamantha Asokan of Doctors of the World told the Guardian today, this further marginalises vulnerable migrants, many of whom are already nervous about seeking necessary healthcare because they fear being asked for documents or payment.
Additionally, she points out that it dissolves relationships of trust between healthcare workers and patients, pointing out that doctors ‘don’t want to be made into border guards — they just want to treat the people in front of them.’
Hunt, in contrast, is more than willing to disregard his core responsibilities in order to further the government’s anti-migrant campaign, stirring panic and prejudice while the health service sinks further into crisis.
If he really wants to be a border guard, we’re sure that can be arranged. But he shouldn’t be secretary of state for health at the same time.
Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on TwitterSign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.