Last month, a Nigerian woman and a Spaniard were abused by a local woman in the A&E of Ipswich Hospital in Suffolk, declaring that they were foreigners who should go back "to your own country".
The woman, Elizabeth Ward-Buck, was given a suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to two counts of racially aggravated common assault and the subsequent assault of a police officer called to deal with the incident.
Yesterday, British prime minister David Cameron travelled to Ipswich to unveil his assault on immigration – an increasingly contentious issue. He said he would "show the door" to those seeking a life on benefits.
Meanwhile, British health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the UK had "some of the most generous rules in the world", adding that he was considering abolishing free primary care for tourists and visitors, as well as forcing them to obtain health insurance.
"The current system of policing and enforcing the entitlement of foreign nationals to free NHS care is chaotic and often out of control at a time when we are having to face the challenges of an ageing society," he told MPs during an emergency debate in the House of Commons.
“It places a significant unjustified burden on our GP surgeries and hospitals and may well impact on the standard of care received by UK citizens.”
However, the plan ran into troubled waters immediately. The UK department of health was unable to put figures on the cost of treating foreign nationals. But even high-end estimates of £200 million (€236 million), while not insignificant, are a drop in the ocean of the NHS's £100 billion budget.
In some cases, an NHS clinic or hospital could bill an immigrant’s home country for the cost of treatment but, because of the paperwork involved, they prefer to send the bill through the NHS system.
Some treatments are not billed: GP care; emergency treatment in A&E; treatment for communicable diseases such as TB, STDs or HIV; and family planning services.
The new rules will only work if GP practices and hospitals can identify foreign nationals at a glance – which would require ID cards, a notion the Conservatives once ruled out for the UK population as a whole.
So far, doctors, welfare officers and social security workers have refused to do the UK immigration service’s job, saying they have to deal with the problems in society as they find them on the ground.
Under home office regulations, an immigrant entering the UK to find work enjoys a “right to reside”, entitling them to claim a payment of between £56.25 and £111.45 a week.
From January, under Cameron’s plan, immigrants would be entitled to receive out-of-work benefits for six months. The payments would then cease if they cannot show they have actively sought work or have a genuine chance of finding it.
Despite the fever pitch of the debate, official figures collated a few months ago show that, of the 2.2 million immigrants from eastern Eu rope who have moved to the UK since 2004, just 12,850 are on the dole.
Some 25,000 more, according to the UK department for work and pensions, are from countries that were part of the EU before 2004, while 35,000 come from African countries and 33,000 from Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
Local authority housing
Cameron is on stronger ground when he complains about the number of local authority houses going to immigrants: it is "up by 40 per cent", he says, with immigrants taking 10 per cent of the stock available compared to 6 per cent a few years ago.
However, the British Local Government Association warns of the gap between rhetoric and practice, saying it is not Whitehall’s job to tell councils who “we should or shouldn’t be housing”, particularly given the Conservatives’ preference for local decision-making.
Councils have legal responsibilities, says the association's Mike Smith: "If we don't house them that means we're going to have to deal with them under the homeless laws, which costs us a great deal more money."