Doctors have launched a campaign against new government policy that they say requires them to act as “border guards” for the Home Office’s immigration enforcement.
Medical charity Doctors of the World, which runs clinics for undocumented migrants, victims of trafficking and asylum seekers, will use a petition and social media push to put pressure on the Government to end new measures brought in since the start of the year, which it warns are frightening vulnerable migrants away from accessing healthcare.
Concern has been mounting among medical staff since a memorandum of understanding published in January stated that NHS digital was required to share patient information with the Home Office. According to the Department of Health, the Home Office made 8,127 requests for data in the first 11 months of 2016. This led to 5,854 people being traced by immigration enforcement teams.
More recent measures that came in at the start of April require hospitals to check whether patients are eligible for free care on the NHS before providing most kinds of care. Doctors and campaigners were not consulted about the changes, and have warned these changes are increasingly discouraging people from accessing healthcare, with potentially fatal consequences.
Dr Peter Gough, a GP who volunteers for Doctors of the World, told The Independent: “We feel like border guards. The deal done in January is not known to medical staff until it happens. It goes against every ethic we stand for.
"We need to be neutral. Our patients need to trust us — it’s vital to them getting better. The migrants we see in the clinic are absolutely desperate. They’re traumatised; they’ve often been trafficked or tortured or raped and discriminated against all along their journey. Then to find that they can’t even trust their doctor — they’ll just disappear.”
It comes after an investigation by The Independent earlier this week found that thousands of asylum seekers and migrants had been wrongly denied NHS healthcare, in some cases being refused treatment despite suffering from life-threatening conditions such as cancer and heart disease.
The investigation also found that a large number of migrants had been wrongly turned away from registering at GP surgeries on the grounds that they did not provide identification documents, and that others had been wrongly charged for hospital treatment, sometimes up to thousands of pounds each.
Doctors of the World told The Independent more than a fifth (22 per cent) of its patients are wrongly turned away from an NHS GP or hospital because they did not have ID or address documents, including people with serious illnesses, and that others were too afraid to access healthcare for fear of being charged or deported.
As part of the campaign, the charity, which saw 1,758 people at its UK clinics last year, said its toolkit for healthcare professionals who want to defy the data sharing, advising they take measures such as registering patients by using the address of the practise instead of their home address and instructing frontline staff not to ask for a passport or proof of ID when registering patients.
Dr Miriam Beeks, a GP in Lower Clapton Group Practice in east London who is already making a stand against data-sharing by putting up posters telling patients that they can register as “no fixed abode”, said: “Doctors in general hate the idea that they are being used as immigration officers.
“They feel that everybody has a right to healthcare. In this country, healthcare is regarded as a basic human right. Most doctors have no idea about the data sharing agreement. It’s extraordinary that doctors have not been asked about this –there has just been some sort of ministerial dictum. How could they think that doctors would not object to this?”
Deborah Gold, Chief Executive at the National AIDS Trust, which is supporting the petition, said: “We profoundly disagree with the decision by the NHS to share patient information with the Home Office. Patient confidentiality is a cornerstone of an ethical and effective healthcare system.
"Data sharing will breakdown trust between doctors and patients, deterring migrants from seeking care and leaving vulnerable people isolated. This includes people who have been tortured, trafficked, who have communicable diseases, and people who have vulnerable dependents including children.
"The policy poses a fundamental risk to both individual and public health. It politicises our GP surgeries and our hospitals, turning healthcare professionals into border guards. We call on NHS Digital to suspend this service to the Home Office and consult widely on their proposals”.
A Government spokesperson said: “We share non-clinical information between health agencies and the Home Office to locate individuals suspected of committing immigration offences.
”Access to this information is strictly controlled, with strong legal safeguards. No clinical information is shared, and before anything at all is shared there has to be a legal basis to do so. Immigration officials only contact the NHS when other reasonable attempts to locate people have been unsuccessful.
“This simply streamlines the existing process by which Home Office requests for data are considered. No additional NHS data is being provided to the Home Office and anyone in genuine need can always receive treatment from the NHS – urgent or necessary care is never withheld.”