Controversy surrounds British health plans for visitors to the UK

Graham McKerrow, HIV i-Base

The British government announced in December plans to withdraw the right of foreign visitors to the UK to receive free health care in the National Health Service – what has become known as ‘health tourism’. The ban would apply to free treatment for all non-infectious diseases including HIV. The government is also consulting on whether or not to introduce compulsory HIV tests for asylum seekers and others seeking the right to remain in the UK.

Health Secretary John Reid told the Sunday Telegraph: “If there are emergencies here, and there are bone fide tourists dropping ill on the street, of course we will do what we have to do morally and legally. But we are not mugs. There is a difference between being civilised and being taken for a ride.”

Some observers say ‘Health tourism’ costs the NHS £200 million a year, although this figure has been widely questioned, and results in other patients having to wait longer for treatment. The proposals would deny free treatment to business travellers and their dependents, failed asylum seekers, and HIV-positive people seeking long-term treatment. Emergency cases would remain exempt from charges. Reid said: “Visitors need to know they will be liable to be charged for treatment.”

In a separate move, the government is consulting on compulsory HIV and TB tests for foreigners seeking permanent residence in the UK. The influential centre-left think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research has come out against the proposal, saying that screening for TB is ineffective and compulsory tests would be counter to public health by pushing the condition underground.

The IPPR says compulsory tests would:

  • Compromise Britain’s reputation for responding to HIV effectively,
  • Contravene the European Convention and UN conventions,
  • Lead to a false sense of security, and
  • Would alienate and stigmatise HIV-positive people in a way that would increase the risk of infection spreading.


Original government proposal:

IPPR report and summary:

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