Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Sarah is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and is the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

How will Brexit affect travel?

While all eyes were on COVID-19 over the last few months, Brexit hasn't gone away. We're currently in a transition period with the EU, but that ends after 31st December 2020, and once Big Ben has ushered us in to 2021, we will no longer be part of the EU.

Brexit will affect every aspect of our lives, from supermarket shopping, undertaking business abroad to online ordering and import taxes. If you are planning to travel abroad, you can't afford to ignore the changes to travel insurance arrangements either.

How will COVID-19 effect Brexit?

Understandably, the focus since the outbreak has been on dealing with the virus, rather than Brexit. But, economically Britain has suffered because of COVID-19, so it’s likely that trade deals may be chopped and changed to help support the new state of the economy. It’s also possible there will be an extension when it comes to the transition period, to enable laws and policies to be handled more efficiently.

This may effect travel plans, but as of yet nothing is set in stone, to stay updated it’s best to keep an eye on the government website.

What does the EHIC currently cover?

The EHIC arrangements mean that if you're from the UK you have access to the same state medical treatment as a local in the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland. However, this does not mean treatment is free: in many countries, citizens need to contribute to healthcare costs.

As well as the cost of emergency care for a one-off medical problem, which is covered by most travel insurance policies, the EHIC covers:

  • Routine maternity care (as long as you're not planning to have your baby while you're abroad)
  • Dialysis for kidney failure (although this needs to be organised through your NHS unit before you travel)
  • Oxygen supply if you need it (again, you'll need to make arrangements in advance)
  • Treatment of a chronic or pre-existing condition which becomes necessary while you're abroad

These are only covered if you're treated by a state, rather than private, healthcare provider in the country you're visiting.

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Will EHIC still be available post 31 December 2020?

The EHIC as it stands will cease to exist on 1st January 2021, however there are a couple of situations where you should be able to continue to use your EHIC:

  • If you're a UK state pensioner who has been living in the EU before the end of 2020
  • If you're a UK student who has started a course in Europe before the end of 2020 (this will only apply until when you finish your course)
  • If you're a 'frontier worker' who lives in one state and works in another

At present, the Government hasn't specifically said that the cover currently provided by EHIC will cease to exist completely. However, the government website is clear that from 1st January 2021, it will be essential to have travel insurance to cover your healthcare while you're away.

The website also makes the point that many people have been able to rely on EHIC for treatment of pre-existing medical conditions which became necessary while they're out of the UK. Many travel insurance policies do not cover pre-existing conditions, so government advice is that it's particularly important to get travel insurance with the right cover if you have any existing medical conditions.

What medical assistance will be you be entitled to in Europe from 1st January 2021 onwards?

What medical help, if any, you'll be able to access in European countries once the UK leaves the EU will depend on what reciprocal arrangements it sets up. Because the arrangements for EHIC are reciprocal, anyone from these countries coming to the UK can access free NHS treatment while they're here under EHIC.

Going forward, if people are to be entitled to any medical assistance in the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland, the UK government would need to negotiate a new reciprocal arrangement with each individual country. That hasn't happened yet and it's not clear whether any such arrangements will be negotiated.

The UK does have reciprocal health insurance arrangements with a few countries outside those currently covered by the EHIC. If there are individual arrangements with European countries in the future, they may follow the same principles.

Amsterdam canal

Why do you need travel insurance with medical cover post 31 December 2020?

Even before the UK leaves the EU, it's important to have travel insurance with medical cover. Firstly, the EHIC doesn't necessarily guarantee free treatment: you'll get medical care at the same cost a local would pay. In the UK, we take it for granted that we can get urgent medical care free on the NHS when we need it. Many citizens of European countries have permanent medical insurance to cover the medical charges their local state provider makes for this sort of care.

Secondly, the EHIC doesn't cover the cost of repatriation if you're taken ill abroad and need special arrangements to get you back to the UK for care. It also doesn't cover the cost of treatment you've undergone abroad specifically to get (this is unlikely to be covered by travel insurance either) and may not cover the cost of ambulances.

However, the EHIC does cover the cost of treatment for pre-existing medical conditions that come up while you're away. Standard travel insurance often excludes any cover for a pre-existing medical condition and if you fail to declare your medical conditions, it may invalidate your insurance. That's why the government stresses the need to get specialist travel health insurance that will cover you if you do have any medical conditions.

What do you need to look out for in a travel insurance policy after Brexit?

It will be more important than ever to make sure your travel insurance also provides medical cover, especially if you have any health conditions which you need to disclose. Healthcare costs can be quite expensive in certain countries and having protection against these costs will be worth it in the long run.

You may also want to consider taking out a policy which includes Scheduled Airline Failure cover (sometimes known as SAFI) or Supplier Failure cover. These will help protect you should your airline, travel provider or accommodation provider get into difficulty and are no longer able to offer their services for your trip.

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Will the rules change about which medicines you can and cannot bring into Europe?

The medicines you're allowed to bring into a given country depend on the laws of that individual country. This is likely to remain unchanged after Brexit.

Each country makes its own rules about which medicines you can bring into the country and the maximum quantity you can carry. You can find out more about travelling with drugs to any country, including those in Europe, from our article and video on travelling with medication.

While the drugs most often prohibited are 'controlled drugs' such as powerful painkillers, there are some surprising exclusions. That's why it's always worth checking with the embassy of the country you're visiting, before you travel, if you're planning to take any medication with you.

Will I need to show physical proof of travel insurance if I seek medical assistance while on holiday in Europe post Brexit?

Whether you will be denied treatment if you don't have proof of travel insurance will depend on the treatment and the country you're visiting. The last thing you need if you're unwell is to be fretting about whether you can get treatment.

So, you should always take a copy of your travel insurance with you when you travel. If possible, I recommend keeping a paper copy and a back-up online copy in case your belongings are lost. I also advise all my patients to keep a note of the emergency number of their travel insurer, and to leave a copy with someone who isn't travelling in case they lose their records.

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If you don't travel much then a single trip cover is perfect as you can cover specific dates suited to your trip. If you have cancellation cover, you'll also benefit from this as soon as you buy your policy. If you travel 2 or more times a year, it may be cheaper for you to go for an annual trip cover. It's best to start your annual trip cover as soon as possible, as if you have cancellation cover, you'll only benefit from this from your policy start date.
It's really simple and quick to do! After you've told us about your trip details and answered some medical history questions you can add your pre-existing conditions, one by one, for each traveller. You'll only need to enter your details once, it's all online and there's no need to call, or provide details of your conditions in writing.
You will need to add each country that you are visiting. If you are on a flight stopover this will include any countries where you leave the airport. If you are on a cruise it includes any countries where your ship will be docking at.
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