Foreigners are to be offered free treatment for HIV on the NHS for the first time under controversial plans backed by ministers.
Those from abroad, including failed asylum seekers, students and tourists are currently barred from receiving free HIV treatment – unlike other infectious diseases.
However, the Government is to support proposals recommended by peers which will end the “anomaly” and allow free treatment even for those not legally settled in Britain.
Campaigners argue that the free treatment is essential as it reduces the risk of Britons being infected – and can help people to be treated for HIV before their condition becomes serious and life-threatening.
However, ministers are braced for criticism that the decision may prompt so-called “health tourism” and put the NHS under financial pressure at a time when hospitals are being forced to find cuts. It typically costs up to £7,000 a year to treat someone diagnosed with HIV and an average of £300,000 per patient over their lifetime with the disease.
Last night, Anne Milton, the public health minister, said: “This measure will protect the public and brings HIV treatment in to line with all other infectious diseases. Treating people with HIV means they are very unlikely to pass the infection on to others.”
However she added: “Tough guidance will ensure this measure is not abused.”
The Government is understood to have decided to introduce free treatment amid fears that the potential costs of being diagnosed were dissuading foreigners from seeking help. There are estimated to be 25,000 people, many of whom are foreign-born, undiagnosed HIV sufferers in Britain.
The Health Protection Agency recently calculated that it costs more than £300,000 to treat every person who contracts the disease including those who go on to develop AIDS. The cost of treating sufferers in the last stages of their lives is particularly high.
The government believes that early diagnosis of sufferers could ultimately help cut costs before the virus is passed on to other people.
If diagnosed early, HIV, although incurable, is now treatable for many people. According to the National Aids Trust, many people taking anti-HIV drugs become non-infectious.