Portugal is considering offering British tourists subsidised post-Brexit healthcare in an effort to retain their custom in the Algarve, Lisbon and beyond.
It is one of several novel measures being considered by the Portuguese government in an effort to minimise the disruption of Brexit to its economy.
Rita Marques, the tourism minister, said the country was examining a unilateral offer to ensure cover offered by the European health insurance card (Ehic), the EU reciprocal system, can continue if a deal is not struck on it during this year’s trade talks.
She said: “The Portuguese and the UK are the oldest allies in the world and no matter what happens the Portuguese will stand by the British. The British traveller is very important to us.
“We are looking to guarantee this health cover next year. We are currently looking at how often it is used and if it is making a positive impact. We are in the process of testing this and the other ideas right now.
“If these are issues that are important to the British traveller, then we have to go for it. We are trying to minimise the disruption to British tourism.”
About 2 million Britons visit Portugal every year. The latest figures show the Algarve is the No 1 destination with 1.2 million British tourists in 2019.
Among the other measures Portugal were considering, said Marques, were dedicated passport lanes for British visitors, special arrangements to continue to recognise British driving licences and entry for British pets.
But the potential to offer replacement healthcare cover when the Ehic ceases to apply to British residents from January next year is the most dramatic and potentially costly intervention the government is considering.
“The idea is you would pay the same as a Portuguese person, which is a small tax to see the GP or to visit a hospital,” Marques said, adding that it would involve agreements with both state and private hospitals.
Unlike the UK, many countries charge a set fee for GP and A&E visits. This co-payment would still apply to British tourists in Portugal where it costs between €14 (£11.70) and €18 for emergency medical service, and between €9 and €45 for a consultation with a GP or health centre.
The Ehic grants EU citizens access to free or reduced-cost healthcare while on holiday in the EU and the European Economic Area, and pays for 250,000 medical treatments of British tourists each year, according to a House of Commons research briefing. However, unless a deal is agreed to continue with the Ehic system, the cover for Britons will disappear on 1 January 2021 when the Brexit transition period ends.
Continuing with the health card may be a price worth paying to keep British tourists, who contribute €3bn – or about 1.5% – to the overall Portuguese economy of €204bn.
Statistics show 17% of tourist receipts come from British tourists, with the number of overnight stays among Britons up almost 8% compared with 1.3% for tourism as a whole.
Last year’s Brelcome campaign, advertising the country’s 850km (530-mile) coastline, food and sunshine, helped reverse a 2018 decrease in British tourist numbers after a six-year boom.