Health cover for retired Britons in EU to last six months in no-deal Brexit

 The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said protecting healthcare rights of UK nationals was a government priority. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

The government has pledged £150m to temporarily cover the healthcare costs of 180,000 British nationals living in the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said workers posted to the bloc, plus pensioners and students, who can currently have their healthcare funded by the UK under existing reciprocal arrangements, would continue to be covered for six months after a crash out.

The government will also pay the treatment costs of UK tourists if they began their holiday before the UK leaves the EU.

“Protecting the healthcare rights of UK nationals is a priority of this government,” said Hancock.

“What we need is reassurance that our rights do not change regardless. That is what the leave campaign promised, that’s what Michael Gove promised and it’s clear every time they make one of these statements that is not the case.”

Jeremy Morgan, vice-chair of British in Europe, said the government’s plea to Britons to sort out healthcare if the NHS cover disappears was “another massive let down” for UK pensioners in the EU.

“The government is urging them to ‘act now to secure access to healthcare’ as if it were as simple as ordering coffee in a restaurant,” he said.

“People won’t get private health insurance if they have existing conditions, and in those countries where it is possible to join a national scheme the cost is simply unaffordable for someone living on the state pension – worth 20% less in euros as a result of Brexit”

Earlier this year, the government pledged to cover the costs of healthcare for up to 12 months for all British citizens in the EU who had started treatment before exit day. The new pledge will extend healthcare costs for new conditions and treatments that begin afterwards.

An estimated 1 million Britons live in the EU, but the majority are earners and pay into EU member state health systems through tax or a combination of tax and insurance, so should remain covered in the event of no deal.

The government announcement covers Britons in the bloc who are retired, students, employees of UK companies or on holiday when Brexit happens.

Also invalidated by a crash out would be the S1 reciprocal healthcare scheme used by an estimated 180,000 pensioners who paid their taxes in the UK but decided to retire elsewhere in the bloc, apart from Ireland where existing arrangements would continue.

The offer by the government in March to cover costs for just one year for treatment agreed or started before exit day prompted fury, with some Britons in the EU questioning what would happen if they fell sick after the UK left the union.

One Briton, retired to France, claimed at the time it was discrimination. “Why should I be treated any differently from any other retired government servant living in the UK?”

Questions remain unanswered about what will happen in the longer term to those who opted to retire abroad in the knowledge that reciprocal arrangements applied throughout the EU as part of EU membership if there is no deal.

The government has proposed continuing the reciprocal arrangement until the end of December 2020 with all EU member states, but no bilateral deals can be signed until the outcome of Brexit negotiations is known.

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