Back to website

Aug 15 2004

EU orders health ID cards for all tourists

By Andy McSmith, Political Editor

15 August 2004

Britons travelling in Europe are to be issued with a new card to give them swift access to the health service when they fall ill. The technology for issuing the cards - which could be a forerunner to more widespread identity cards - is being prepared by the Department of Health, on instructions from the EU Commission, which wants a standard card in use across all 25 EU states.

Travellers may welcome the new cards, which will be available from 1 January 2006, because they will be free and less complicated than the E1-11 form Britons are supposed to fill in before leaving for the Continent. Most tourists ignore the form and hope that they do not suffer health problems while they are away.

But the cards will get a mixed reception from those who are fighting a battle against government plans to compel all British citizens to register for ID cards.

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, is keen to introduce the cards as a means of preventing "health tourists" heading to Britain and taking advantage of free treatment on the NHS.

Simon Davies, director general of Privacy International, warned: "We knew from the very beginning of ID cards' gestation that access to the NHS was one of their core targets. If there is an economic argument for ID cards, this is it."

Barry Hugill of the civil rights organisation Liberty said: "We can never have any objection to sensible measures which are just a way of making it simpler to obtain health care, but we fear that what the Government will do is use it as a way of preparing public opinion for their much wider ID proposal."

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, also wants to introduce them as an anti-crime measure. He believes that ID cards would make it harder for terrorists to operate in Britain, and would reduce the number of cases of fraud and theft in which criminals use false identities.

He says that all British adults should be compelled to register for the purpose of obtaining an ID card, just as they are compelled to register to vote. However, since the cards are likely to be replace driving licences and passports, they would in effect become compulsory for anyone who wants to drive, travel abroad, use the NHS, or receive state benefits.

His plans were criticised by the CBI last week, because the Government is not prepared to accept responsibility when companies use information that appears on the ID registry which then turns out to be incorrect.

Another problem, which neither the Home Office nor the Health Department has yet solved, is that there are many foreign residents in Britain who would not be entitled to an ID card, even though they do qualify for free health care.