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29 Dec 2020

British travellers can still access free healthcare in Europe after Brexit

Holidaymakers can use their Ehic until it expires, with a new replacement reciprocal healthcare scheme Ghic set to launch in January

UK holidaymakers will continue to have access to emergency and necessary healthcare when travelling to the EU, as part of the new Brexit deal.

The current European Health Insurance Card (Ehic) allows UK residents to access healthcare at the same cost (often free) as local residents while on holiday. It covers medical emergencies, chronic or pre-existing conditions and routine care such as maternity.

After the Brexit transition ends on 31 December 2020, UK travellers can continue to use their Ehic card - which can last up to five years, until its expiry date. However, you will no longer be covered in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland.

From January, travellers without a valid Ehic can apply for a new UK Global Health Insurance Card (Ghic), which will replace Ehic once it has been phased out.

Details of the new reciprocal health arrangement are yet to be revealed.

Uncertainty remains over whether travellers, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions, will be offered the same level of subsidised care under Ghic as the Ehic currently provides.

The Brexit agreement states that travellers in need of specialised treatment in the EU, such as dialysis and cancer care, must pre-arrange it directly with their healthcare provider to ensure it's available.

Travel insurance is still essential

The government advises that Brits travelling to the EU and beyond always take out comprehensive travel insurance.

Regardless of Brexit, it's crucial you get travel insurance as soon as you book a holiday as there are costs involved in medical emergencies which aren't covered by Ehic.

Additionally, without insurance, you won't be protected if you need to cancel the trip for reasons beyond your control, such as falling ill or being made redundant.

We currently recommend getting medical cover worth at least £2m when visiting Europe.

As a bare minimum, you also need cover worth up to £1m for personal liability, £3,000 for cancellation (or more depending on the value of your booking) and £1,500 for personal belongings, not to mention additional insurance for COVID-19.

Revealed: Best and worst travel insurance

For independent travel advice and exclusive investigations, subscribe to Which? Travel.

The cost of medical procedures in Europe without Ehic or travel insurance

An estimated one in five UK holidaymakers don't take out travel insurance before going abroad, according to the travel association Abta's research from 2019.

Which? has found that most treatments would be extremely expensive if not covered by a reciprocal healthcare arrangement or travel insurance. Hospital treatment for severe food poisoning can cost £2,000 in Portugal, for instance, while the cost of a heart attack in France can be £14,000.

The cost of emergency medical treatment in the EU varies greatly depending on the severity of your condition. According to an official price list for healthcare on the Balearic Islands, the cost of a pelvic fracture or hip dislocation in Mallorca, for example, is between £1,671 and £8,329. Stomach complaints such as gastritis or a peptic ulcer cost between £1,991 and £9,451.

Man in hospital with a broken leg

We asked several major travel insurers how costs compare in some of Europe's most popular holiday destinations.

Admiral told us the average cost of being hospitalised for food poisoning costs around £1,500 in France or Italy, compared with £2,000 in Greece, Portugal and Spain. An appendectomy in France or Italy costs £4,000 compared with £7,000 in the other three countries. Even something as minor as stitches for a cut could cost between £300 and £500, the insurer told us.

Aviva provided us with medical costs related to specific scenarios, all of which would currently be covered by Ehic. A 65 year old who has a heart attack, needing surgery and 10 days of hospitalisation, for example, could face costs of £14,000 in France or £12,000 in Spain. A broken leg in France will cost around £7,500 compared with £4,000 in Greece.

These costs are based on private treatment received within the country's public hospital, but billed at an international patients private rate. These examples don't include repatriation (transportation back to the UK), which can greatly increase the overall cost.