For many British tourists, the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) has long been a fundamental part of any holiday in the European Union (EU). The little blue card replaced the E111 card in 2005 and has offered an extra level of financial protection for Britons, should they fall ill while abroad and incur medical expenses.

However, as we near the end of the transition period, and no reciprocal agreement appears to be in place, the future of the EHIC is starting to look uncertain.


What is an EHIC?

An EHIC is a medical card that can be used in certain European countries (including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland) that allows British holidaymakers to have free, or heavily discounted, treatment in public hospitals should they fall ill and need emergency medical attention while on holiday.

The reciprocal agreement has meant that British tourists would pay the same price for treatment at a hospital as local residents would, and vice versa.


Why is the EHIC different from travel insurance?

Many people believe that they don’t need travel insurance if they have an EHIC card. However, EHICs and travel insurance policies provide different types of financial protection and it is important that holidaymakers ensure they have both in place before they go on holiday.

An EHIC only provides help towards medical costs incurred while on holiday. The EHIC can only be used for sudden illness or as a result of an accident, and must not be used for any planned treatment.

However, it’s important to remember that it may only provide discounted treatment in some cases and not always free. There are also some countries in the EU where the EHIC cannot be used as there is no agreement in place, including in The Isle of Man, The Channel Islands, San Marino, Monaco and The Vatican.

The EHIC is also not permitted to be used in private facilities. In any case, the EHIC only helps with the cost of medical treatment and does not provide cover for the majority of things that travel insurance does.

For example, if holidaymakers need to be repatriated back to the UK for urgent medical attention, the EHIC would not cover these costs – but a travel insurance policy would. Also, if a British tourist were to pass away while on holiday, the travel insurance provider would arrange and fly the body back to the UK – whereas an EHIC wouldn’t provide this protection.

Travel insurance policies also provide cover for other costs that could be associated with a medical emergency. For example, a policy might cover transportation costs for family members to visit while the customer is in a hospital abroad. It may also cover taxi costs if the hospital isn’t close to the holiday destination.


What is the transition period and why is the EHIC at risk?

The healthcare arrangement between the UK and the EU was put in jeopardy after Briton voted to leave the EU back in June 2016.

When the UK officially left the EU on January 31st, 2020, Britain immediately entered an 11-month transition period. During this time, the government was (and still is) expected to follow the EU rules and negotiate deals, such as trade, healthcare, and in particular, the EHIC, with other European countries before the period ends on December 31st.

However, as the UK approaches the end of the transition period with no deal on the EHIC in sight, travel insurers have begun planning for what the future of travel may look like, without an EHIC.


What does this change mean for British holidaymakers?

Travelling without an EHIC means that British holidaymakers who require medical attention while abroad could face paying hefty medical bills upfront if they do not have travel insurance in place.

This is because the cost of medical treatment is likely to increase as we will no longer have access to the subsidised benefits that the EHIC permitted.

Holidaymakers will need to buy a suitable travel insurance policy that covers medical expenses in order to protect themselves from any unexpected medical costs.

To put things into perspective, in 2019 the average medical claim was around £1,368, according to the Association of British Insurers.

This means that if a British tourist needed medical attention abroad, they could be left paying a lump sum of £1,368 up front, for example, without the use of the EHIC or appropriate travel insurance.

On top of this, if the tourist needed to be flown back to the UK earlier than planned due to a worsening medical condition, they could face paying an additional £8,000 minimum for an air ambulance.

Of course, with a suitable travel insurance policy the travel insurer will most likely cover these costs. However, those who take a risk and travel without insurance could be left with a nasty bill…


Does that mean travel insurance policies will go up in price?

It is too early to predict exactly if, or how much, policies could increase due to Britain leaving the EU without a deal in place.

As it stands, the UK government still has around five months left to negotiate with EU leaders and come to an agreement with regards to the EHIC or future healthcare.

However, during this time, British travel insurers will be measuring the impact that a no-deal could have on policy premiums.

It’s also worth knowing that there are already insurers with Brexit-ready insurance policies available today. Cover varies from provider to provider but many of these insurers will cover you for anything beyond your reasonable control, which could be applied to Brexit disrupting your holiday. We would recommend that anyone who already has a holiday booked for 2021 considers investing in one of these types of policies in order to Brexit-proof their trip.

Until the government provides a clearer picture of what the future of travel could look like, it’s very hard to predict whether the price of travel insurance policies will increase as a result of the UK leaving the EU.

For more information on how to prepare for a trip in the EU after the UK finishes the transition period, click here.