Things have gone very quiet on the Brexit front – travellers and politicians have other things to worry about at the moment, perhaps. But last week I received an email from Carol, a reader whose husband suffers from a long-term illness and she is very preoccupied about Brexit indeed.
The illness sometimes requires medical treatment at short notice and she is anxious that they will no longer be able to afford to go on holiday abroad, because the costs of insuring him will be so high.
Her point was that currently they are able to travel in Europe without insurance cover for that specific condition. This is because they can rely on the reciprocal health – or EHIC – arrangement, which entitles UK citizens to medical care using the public health system in all EU countries, plus a few other non-EU members such as Switzerland and Norway.
It’s an excellent and sensible scheme, and it especially benefits older travellers and those who are at higher risk of needing urgent medical care. I have warned that we may lose it as a result of Brexit but have clung on to the hope that it will be included as part of the final trade deal.
The latest signals from Government are not encouraging, however. It is seeming more and more likely that we will end the transition period on Dec 31 without such a deal. A clue lies in a public briefing document published recently (gov.uk/visit-europe) that warns about the likely changes for travellers in several different areas.
These include new arrangements for pet travel (the pet passport scheme is ending and four months’ notice will be required under the new system) and stricter requirements for passport validity and for border control. Not only will we have to queue in the slow track when we arrive in an EU country, but we may have to show a return or onward ticket and prove that we have enough money for our stay.
The guarantee of free roaming for mobile phones is also ending. The only consolation the Government offers us on this is that we are protected from getting mobile data charges above £45 without our knowing. In other words, once you’ve spent £45 on data, your roaming will be blocked unless you agree to pay more.
But it is the threat to the EHIC card which, I think, will be the greatest loss to some holidaymakers. Insurers tell me that if the scheme does end, the additional costs for standard travel insurance policies will not be especially high. As Carol points out, however, for anyone with a pre-existing health condition and all those aged over 65, the consequences could be very significant.
For these people, travel insurance, if they can find it, can cost hundreds of pounds. And the option to buy a policy which excludes cover for a specific condition, in the knowledge that emergency treatment is available at no (or low) cost locally, will no longer be viable. Meanwhile, even the healthiest older travellers can expect increases in premiums at 65 and probably every five years after that.
Whatever your view of the EU, it is hard not to concede that it has brought many benefits to consumers. The rules which protect our rights to refunds for cancelled holidays and flights, and which also protect our money in the case of a tour operator going out of business all stem from EU directives. Anyone who has gained compensation for a delayed flight can also thank the EU.
These benefits are not currently under threat, thankfully, because they are enshrined in UK law.
For all the posturing and politics of the negotiations, surely it is in all our interests to rescue as many benefits as possible from our membership, including the EHIC card. Let’s not bite off our own nose to spite the EU’s political face.