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Former NHS chief condemns political ‘exaggeration’ of health tourism impact

The former NHS England chief executive has condemned plans for a crackdown on patient nationality checks in GP surgeries as a ‘political’ manoeuvre, and warned they risked turning NHS staff into ‘border police’.

Sir David Nicholson said on Twitter that the cost to the NHS of immigration had been blown out of proportion for political gain, and said the Department of Health plan for GP practices to check all new patients for a valid European Health Insurance Card that entitles them to free NHS care – revealed by Pulse – should not turn them into ‘border guards’.

He also reiterated the founding principles of the NHS – that it should be free at the point of use – after the DH failed to rule out revaluating plans to extend NHS charging to migrants when asked by Pulse.

The DH has told Pulse that the pilots are intended to test the feasibility of asking GPs to routinely check patient documentation.

But Sir David tweeted today: ‘Impact of health tourism massively exaggerated for political purposes NHS staff are not border guards #universalfreeatthepointofuse’

Responding to coverage of Pulse’s story today the international medical charity, Doctors of the World said that the crackdown could further complicate the ‘already confusing system’ of checks which vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers have to go through to receive care they are entitled to.

They added that practices would have to operate the same checks on all new patients to avoid discrimination, and that this could create a large administrative burden.

Lucy Jones, who manages the Doctors of the World clinic in Bethnal Green said: ‘The EHIC system should be made to work, but not at the expense of migrants who are entitled to care but can’t get it because of confusion over proof of identity questions.

‘To be non-discriminatory, everyone seeking to register with a GP will have to be asked their nationality, which could put extra strain on already overburdened frontline healthcare staff.’

Executive director of Doctors of the World UK Leigh Daynes added: ‘Primary care must be accessible to everyone… The current mechanisms to recover costs should be made to work harder but it must not become a slippery slope where more checks are added to an already confusing system.’

The DH has previously claimed that charging migrants could generate £200m annually for the NHS.