The government has published a set of proposals designed to put an end to so-called 'health tourism" and claw back uncollected charges owed from foreign use of the National Health Service.

The exact cost of health tourism to the NHS remain a mystery, and is the subject of a current investigation. But speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, Jeremy Hunt said the lowest estimate is £12 million. 

That is "£12 million we don't collect from people who should be paying for their treatment but don't pay for it, and we know that because that is the amount the NHS writes off every year, that alone is around 2,000 hip operations", he said.

"We have the most generous system when it comes to healthcare for foreign visitors", Hunt noted, adding "I think is the rather extraordinary fact that tourists coming here, however short a trip, get completely free access to primary care, and completely free access to A&E".

As such, the government is mulling over a number of different measures intended to tighten up the system and save cash, including an annual levy of around £200 to be charged to overseas visitors in the UK for up to five years, charging for access to primary care, and incentivising (and perhaps centralising) the collection of charges.

In its consultation document, the government stressed that: "the NHS is and will remain free at the point of delivery for our residents, but it cannot continue as an international rather than a national health service".

"The majority of people, who visit or reside here temporarily, make only occasional and necessary use of the NHS, but our current system also attracts ‘health tourists’ - people who take advantage of our current generous entitlements and are able to avoid detection or payment", it said.

Recovering costs

Another issue is that the NHS currently struggles to identify and recover the cost from those not entitled to free treatment, and the government is keen to stem the flow of this resource bleed.

"NHS resources, both financial and clinical, are used to treat and care for people who have no long-term commitment to our country and should contribute towards it. We urgently need to address this issue or the system is likely to become unsustainable", it stressed.

However, there is concern among the medical profession over the potential for their involvement in immigration control and the workload and health impact the new measures might have. If visitors are put off from visiting the GP or hospital, there may be a greater risk to the public if certain diseases  - such as TB and HIV - go untreated, they argue.

But Hunt told the Today Programme that there would be an exemption "on all public health grounds", and he also pointed out that in other countries, with much less generous healthcare systems for overseas visitors, there did not seem to be any issues with higher disease rates.