Charities and medical organisations have spoken out against a government guidance allowing the Home Office to access details of undocumented migrants seeking medical care.
The agreement was published in January by the government and NHS Digital – which stores patient information – and the agreement states that the NHS Digital is legally obliged to hand over non-clinical details including addresses and dates of birth to the Home Office. The Home Office’s access to NHS data enables immigration officers to locate, arrest and deport undocumented migrants and individuals who have overstayed their visa.
Doctors of the World is an independent humanitarian movement working to empower excluded people to access to healthcare. Their #StopSharing campaign is working to raise awareness of this deal and offer healthcare professionals advice on how to defy the data-sharing deal.
In order to outline the practical methods that doctors can use to keep patients’ addresses off NHS records, Doctors of the World has produced a “safe surgeries” toolkit, informing on how to circumvent the Home Office memorandum of understanding on data sharing. The kit informs medical staff that they do not have ask for a passport, proof of identity or proof of address when registering patients, and provides GP surgeries with posters informing patients that they are not legally obliged to provide such information.
Martha Spurrier, director of human rights organisation Liberty, expressed her concerns about the agreement and its consequences: “This government has made border guards of teachers, landlords, bank clerks and now even doctors, all as part of a misguided and counterproductive obsession with creating a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants.” Spurrier warned that fostering fear of doctors will put the health of vulnerable members of society at risk, “including children and victims of trafficking and torture.” Meanwhile, Deborah Gold, chief executive of the National Aids Trust say the agreement means the NHS have “betrayed their responsibility to safeguard the confidentially of NHS patients”, whilst also harming public health.
The government has defended the agreement, with a spokesperson saying that no clinical information will be shared, and stating “Anyone in genuine need can always receive treatment from the NHS – urgent or necessary care is never withheld.” However, Doctors of the World have highlighted several cases in which people are too afraid to visit a doctor for fears of their information being obtained by the Home Office and used to deport them. In one case, a young Ugandan woman without a visa who was almost six months pregnant, hadn’t sought antenatal care for fear that her information would not be confidential, and she would be sent to Uganda without her baby as a result. Doctors of the World also described the hardships faced by a woman from the Philippines without a visa. Despite finding a lump on her breast and having a family history of breast cancer, the woman did not attend her first biopsy appointment for fears that the hospital would pass on her information to the Home Office.
This follows reports last month that the Home Office was obtaining information from homelessness charities and local councils about immigrants who were sleeping on the streets, leading to their removal from the UK.
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