OPINION: There’s a stark difference between healthcare in UK and Spain

Sue Wilson of Bremain in Spain compares recent experience of healthcare in Britain and in Spain.

OPINION: There's a stark difference between healthcare in UK and Spain

Since the referendum in 2016, healthcare for Brits in Spain has been a much-discussed topic. Many British residents worry about losing their existing ‘free’ cover, despite frequent reassurances from both the British and Spanish governments that our rights will be protected.

With the NHS reportedly the key issue for British voters in the forthcoming election, the state of the British health service is much-covered in the British media. For many years, world-wide nations have envied the standard healthcare provided by Britain. The NHS has been held up as a leading light of quality care, free at the point of service and with dedicated and caring staff.

Is that viewpoint still valid, and how does it compare to the Spanish healthcare system?

If you were viewing the NHS from the USA, and are not fortunate enough to have private healthcare, then you might indeed be envious of what is on offer in Britain. With 500,000 Americans expected, just this year alone, to be bankrupted by medical charges, it is understandable why many would not even bother to seek medical help, when it comes with such a hefty price tag.

As a British pensioner and S1 holder, I’m entitled to medical care in Spain. I also hold a British European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) that covers me while travelling in 27 other EU countries, the UK included – for now.

I must praise the Spanish healthcare system, where I can obtain a ‘medico’ appointment within a couple of hours. Compare that to waiting up to six weeks in the UK to see your GP. People have either probably recovered or deteriorated by the time their appointment arises, and any treatment can start.

Over the last fortnight, I‘ve witnessed the inside of both a British and a Spanish hospital. The difference is stark.

My mother was recently admitted to hospital in England, following a nasty infection. I lost count of the number of scans, x-rays, blood tests and other tests performed over several days, to diagnose the cause of mum’s symptoms. The treatment by doctors, nurses and hospital staff was comprehensive – and everyone was kind, caring and communicative – but it was abundantly clear that resources are stretched. It is clear that without foreign nationals, predominantly from the European Union, the hospital would fail to function.

By contrast, when my husband had out-patient surgery last week in our local Spanish hospital, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different. Plenty of staff were on hand and they were calm and unstressed. Compare that to the UK hospital, where all the staff looked as if they needed a decent night’s sleep or a holiday.

When talking to fellow Brits in Spain, I’ve always heard glowing reports of the hospital treatment they have received here. The hospitals are well-equipped, clean and modern. I’ve yet to hear any stories of long waiting times or patients sleeping on trolleys in corridors.

I’m sure the Spanish system has its faults, but if I had to choose where to be treated, the Spanish hospital would win hands down over its British counterpart. That has absolutely nothing to do with the quality or the commitment of the staff in the British healthcare system – I could not fault them at all, there are just not enough of them.

The fate of the British health and social care sector could be determined by the December 12th election result. Despite the prime minister’s reassurances that the NHS isn’t for sale in any future trade deal with the US, the unredacted report procured by Jeremy Corbyn strongly suggests otherwise. Even if that doesn’t happen, the cost to the NHS of medicines could increase drastically in the future.

Regardless of your political persuasion, it seems patently obvious that the NHS is in crisis. It needs a massive financial injection, to counter the terrible lack of investment over recent years. However, the biggest issue facing the NHS is the lack of staff, with vacancies for doctors and nurses now at record levels.

At the time of the Brexit referendum, the British public was led to believe that EU citizens were responsible for everything from lack of GP appointments to hospital waiting times and a shortage of hospital beds.  By now, the British public are hopefully aware that EU citizens are providing most of the healthcare, not using it.

For the sake of our families and friends in Britain, I hope that the new government – whatever it might be – starts treating our EU workers with the respect and kindness they deserve, before the exodus back to Europe becomes even worse.

Meanwhile, lets be grateful that we have an excellent healthcare system here in Spain, and that we live in a country where immigrants are welcome.

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain


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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.