If you saw the front pages of two major newspapers this morning, you might have seen a some bold claims about so-called “health tourism”. The Daily Mail reported that the inflammatory term is “draining” the NHS, slipping the intentionally divisive “F” word – “foreign” – above the headline. The Sun went with a different tact.
They singled out one case to report on – the case of a woman who reportedly “cost” the NHS £500,000 that, they point out, “taxpayers foot [the] bill” for. On page one we learn a few things about the woman in question: her nationality – “Nigerian” – is the second word. She’s described as a “quads mum” who “jets” in for NHS care. (It’s important that she “jets” in, because that sounds more affluent and glamorous than “flying”, doesn’t it?)
What we wouldn't guess from the headline is that this woman, Pricilla, a nurse, was rushed into hospital after going into premature labour with quad babies at 24 weeks, as she flew home to Nigeria. And that, as a result, she lost two of her four children.
It’s curious, isn’t it, that despite the relatively low impact of so-called “health tourism” in a wider economic context, there are decidedly less questions being asked about Britain’s wealthiest, who are saving £1 billion per year via “special treatment” from HMRC
Buried later in the copy, you might read that Pricilla was warned by her gynaecologist that it might be unsafe to give birth in Nigeria (where she would have a 1 in 13 chance of dying during labour) and that she set out to do what any parent would surely do: to give her babies the best chance of survival. She had family in the US, so flew there to try and keep herself and her unborn children safe. She was turned away, despite having a visa and adhering to legal requirements, and went into premature labour during the flight home, which took a route via Heathrow. The cabin crew called an ambulance. Pricilla was rushed to hospital, where she lost one child immediately. A second baby died last weekend. She is now being looked after by a charity and her story will feature on the BBC's Hospital tonight. Her remaining two babies are still in intensive care and her husband cannot afford to fly over, so she’s alone.
Pricilla's plight sounds terrifying and traumatic, yet you wouldn't know it from today's unfeeling reports. Her loss doesn't feature on the front pages, or even for a further six paragraphs in The Sun, because that might induce a little empathy. Which is exactly what this story isn’t about. When did we become so publicly uncaring?
Just as health tourism was used to undermine and scaremonger during Brexit, so it is here. It’s used a tool to throw suspicion on those in need, to mark them as a little less human. Grieving mothers are depicted not as people, but numbers, plotting to use the NHS. Pricilla didn't ask to come to the UK to give birth. No questions are asked about her, or of what circumstances she could have been in to put her already straining body under increased duress – or, indeed, what choice she had regarding her care as she went into labour unexpectedly prematurely – because that does not fit the agenda. The tone evades sympathy because, according to the wealthy newspapers “outraged” by how your money is being spent, this is exactly why the NHS is in crisis.
Of course, there should be fair regulations and management of the NHS and its budget – it is a pride of this country. But as one Twitter user mused, are we really more comfortable with letting four new born babies, and possibly their mother, too, die – than saving the equivalent of 1p per taxpayer? It’s curious, isn’t it, that despite the low impact of so-called “health tourism” in a wider economic context – it accounts for just 0.24 per cent of the NHS budget – there are decidedly less questions being asked about Britain’s wealthiest, who are saving £1 billion per year via “special treatment” from HMRC and the like.
And arguably the wider issue here, of course, is not actually finances, but the strengthening of division. And plans for privatisation, as the NHS is subtly undermined and the masses are persuaded to unquestioningly criticise the public body we should be rallying for. The headlines use seemingly dramatic figures, devoid of real context, and dehumanising language to incite a false sense of superiority to their readers. And, all too often, it translates into disdain and hate: this time of a grieving, new mother who unwittingly became the face of a very ugly agenda.