Have we reached the silly season already? It seems like it with this proposal.
Political parties are rarely any good at coming up with workable policies when they are in office, but then again they don't seem to be much better at it when they are out of office either. And when it comes to the design of inept policies they don't get much wackier than this one. It therefore seems entirely apposite to start a new series of articles highlighting such political ineptitude and fuzzy logic with this real corker of an idea.
The ConDem coalition's latest big idea is to charge all overseas non-EU visitors an extra £200 for their visas in exchange for the right to use the NHS when they are here in the UK. The alleged reason for this policy is to counter so-called health tourism where overseas migrants come to the UK to use our NHS but then avoid paying for the treatment they get. The first question, therefore, is will this policy work? Will it deter people from coming to the UK just to use our health service for free?
The answer to this is clearly no. Charging foreigners £200 pounds is going to be no deterrent when the potential benefits are health costs that could be a hundred or a thousand times greater. In fact £200 is even barely significant when compared to many international air fares. So where is the actual deterrent? In fact you could argue (and Richard Murphy does) that the new policy could actually increase the scale of the problem by legitimizing it. That, however, is not the only massive flaw in this policy.
The second question is does it result in any adverse or negative consequences? The answer here is clearly yes. In effect the proposal is to levy a tariff on all foreign visitors in order to pay for a minority that might abuse the NHS system. But that means that the majority will be punished for the actions of a minority, and as the majority are free to avoid the tariff by simply travelling to another country, the result is likely to be a substantial fall in students and tourist numbers entering or visiting the UK. So not only does the policy not deter the people it is supposed to, it instead actively deters the people we want and need to come here to boost our economy.
The third test of any policy should be, do the benefits outweigh the costs? The answer here is also clearly negative, as the results of the first two tests do not even begin to compensate for each other. They are clearly both additive and negative. So the sum of the two effects in massively negative.
The fourth question any new policy needs to address is, do we need it? Well in the case of health tourism no-one really knows how big this problem is. It may cost the country £12m a year or it may be £200m, but either way it is still insignificant in comparison to the size of an NHS budget of £109bn. So this policy clearly fails the fourth test of any workable policy - necessity.
So what we have is a policy that we don't need (yet), that will fail to deter the people it is designed to deter, that will instead deter the overseas visitors we want and need, and may in fact even encourage the problem of health tourism to grow further by legitimizing it. It really does take a phenomenal degree of incompetence to invent a policy that is quite that useless and counterproductive.