Farewell EHIC!

This summer season—so different for all of us—has an extra poignancy for my family. It may be the last one that the four of us will spend on holiday together. My daughter is 18 now and we’ve been expecting the 21 year old to opt out of family holidays for a while, although he’s always claimed to enjoy spending a summer fortnight with us. And if he sometimes claimed it from the comfort of a poolside lounger, chilled beer in hand, that didn’t make us feel any less loved. Self-delusion is part of parenthood.

Perhaps this year’s staycation will prompt less filial love. And in a way it will be a relief to be done with the family holiday. However delightful it was to head for the sun, bags in hand, it’s stressful to take your brood abroad. Five minutes in, the problems would start. Something crucial had inevitably been left behind on the kitchen table, requiring one of us to run back to the house and get it, then maybe to run back again ten minutes later, to check the door was properly locked. Soon afterwards someone would urgently need to eat, or buy a hat, or find a toilet. I know a family whose three children were all sick in the taxi on the way to the airport. For years, in fact, we hardly dared to go abroad, sticking to rented cottages, windy beaches and that sad mainstay of the English family holiday, indoor play centres.

Our first summer holiday in the sun was on a buffalo farm near Naples. We all slept in the same room. Mozzarella was served at every meal. But there was a glorious swimming pool and my children spent all day jumping in it—until they both developed ear infections and had to be taken to see the local pharmacist. His shop was in the shadow of the three ruined temples at Paestum and he had the quiet, bearded look of a Greek philosopher.

“We see it all the time,” said the pharmacist, sadly, handing over some ear drops. “These northern children spend the whole year in socks and shoes, then they come here and go crazy jumping in the pool.”

I felt ashamed of our weather, our northern children and our shoes and socks, but deeply grateful for the expertise of that pharmacist and all the other health professionals we encountered in clinics, pharmacies and hospitals across Europe over the years. The very first of them was the Spanish paediatrician who attended to my son when he was a baby, accompanying me on a work trip. He had been crying for hours and was clearly in pain. I thought he must be gravely ill. A nighttime dash to the hospital in Bilbao provided immediate reassurance.

“Gas,” pronounced the paediatrician. Our baby let out a long burp—and was cured.

Visiting the local pharmacist or hospital—for advice on a mystery infection, a rash, a minor injury—later became a regular feature of the summer break, a chance to practise our languages and pick up some specialist vocabulary. It was interesting to see the difference between one country’s health care system and the next. There was the elegant discretion of French pharmacies, where stacks of beautiful plain white boxes offered a range of esoteric solutions to ailments we never knew existed. French pharmacists are trusted members of the community and know more intimate details about their regular customers than the village priest. Spanish ones are painfully blunt, as I discovered when I tried to speak confidentially about cystitis to the woman at the till. “It BURNS when she URINATES,” this woman shouted across the shop to a pharmacist working at the back. A crowd of curious heads turned in my direction.

 

In Holland my children had to whip off their tops for a pharmacist who suspected “fisherman’s itch.” In Sweden a pharmacist was perplexed by my daughter’s bumpy tongue, but found us something that sorted it out. In northern Italy, after the pool turned green and another painful ear infection ensued, we took our children to the local hospital where the doctor and nurse were so furious with one another we assumed they must be having an affair.

“WE HAVE TO CHARGE THEM FOR THIS CONSULTATION!” yelled the doctor.

“NO WE DON’T. THEY’VE GOT THEIR EHIC!”, the nurse yelled back before storming off to the smoking area.

And we did have it, thank God, because, whatever other crucial thing we had left at home—including a whole suitcase once—we always remembered our European Health Insurance Cards. The EHIC entitles the holder to healthcare on the same basis as the locals in all countries in the European Economic Area, plus Switzerland.

Crucially, it covers preexisting conditions, unlike many travel insurance policies. It’s peace of mind in plastic form, a ticket to dependable healthcare in 32 European countries.

And after December 2020, UK citizens won’t be able to use it anymore.

Perhaps we’ll barely miss the EHIC. Perhaps it will be simple enough to take out the right insurance or to pay our medical bills and get reimbursed for them at some later point. It’s going to be another thing to worry about, though, and that’s the last thing you want on a family holiday when your child says they think they may have swallowed a funny looking berry.

Farewell to the EHIC. You served as well. Adios, Adieu, Arrivederci.

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