Foreign NHS workers treating Covid patients are at risk of being denied vaccinations because of internal guidelines about who can receive the jab, the Guardian has learned.
Documents circulated among staff at one leading hospital show vaccinators have been told they must not immunise anyone without an NHS number.
A senior source at the NHS trust said the instruction was disproportionately likely to affect foreign nurses and people from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background who had not registered with a GP. “We’re basically being told to turn away ethnic minorities and foreigners, who are fundamental to delivery of healthcare in this country,” the source said.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that having an NHS number should never be a precondition for the coronavirus jab. This is understood to be echoed by NHS England.
The issue has arisen due to the national immunisation vaccination system (NIVS), which the NHS uses to record details of medical staff who have been immunised.
The government’s joint committee on vaccination and immunisation has published a list of groups of people who will be prioritised to receive a vaccine for Covid-19 in the UK. The list is:
1 All those 80 years of age and over and health and social care workers.
2 All those 75 and over.
3 All those 70 and over.
4 All those 65 and over.
5 Adults under 65 at high at risk of serious disease and mortality from Covid-19.
6 Adults under 65 at moderate risk of at risk of serious disease and mortality from Covid-19.
7 All those 60 and over.
8 All those 55 and over.
9 All those 50 and over.
10 Rest of the population.
Details cannot be uploaded without an NHS number, according to official instructions on how to use NIVS issued by NHS Digital and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
The document says that where staff do not have an NHS number “the vaccine should not be given”.
One email sent to the hospital explicitly states that overseas nurses without NHS numbers should not be vaccinated, although those from the “devolved nations” – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – can be recorded on paper.
The Guardian understands that some hospitals are working around the issue to ensure staff without NHS numbers are also being vaccinated but there are fears individuals could fall through the cracks.
Staff at one hospital set up a separate system to vaccinate workers with and without NHS numbers – but were later advised not to do so and to follow the NIVS protocol instead.
“We’ve decided that’s wrong,” said the source. “We’re vaccinating them anyway, then we’re asking them to register afterwards and we’ll put them on the system retrospectively.”
As well as NHS staff, workers employed by external contractors, such as cleaners, hospital porters and security guards, could also be passed over.
“We employ, through contracts, lots of people from BAME backgrounds and recent immigrants who aren’t registered with GPs, or have never had an interaction with the health service and don’t have an NHS number,” said the source.
“You’re talking security staff, porters but also student nurses coming from outside the country to work for us.”
Rachel Harrison, the national officer at the GMB union, said: “To hear workers could be denied access to vaccination because they do not have an NHS number and are not from this country is an utter disgrace. The government needs to address this immediately.”
Meanwhile, the charity Doctors of the World UK has said that letters to migrants asking for identification documents such as a passport and warning they might be charged for NHS treatment could threaten the vaccination programme.
One patient at the North West Anglia NHS foundation trust in Peterborough received a letter inviting her to attend an appointment for a second dose of the vaccine, after getting her first, which requests she brings ID such as a passport. It also includes information about who is and is not eligible for free NHS treatment.
The letter says: “The Department of Health overseas visitors charging regulations place a legal obligation on NHS trusts to establish your entitlement to free NHS treatments. NHS trusts must charge liable patients and recover costs before treatment. The onus is always on the patient to prove their eligibility for free NHS care.”
The patient said: “Hospital staff told me that all they need in order to give the vaccine is a person’s NHS number. I don’t know why they need this extra information.”
She said she knew of vulnerable migrants who had fallen out of the system and did not have NHS numbers who could miss out on being immunised.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Vaccines for coronavirus will be offered to every adult living in the UK free of charge, regardless of immigration status. While NHS numbers form an important part of the administrative process, they are not a precondition for being offered a vaccine.
“People who are registered with a GP are being contacted at the earliest opportunity, and we are working closely with partners and external organisations to contact people, including migrants, who are not registered with a GP to ensure they are offered the vaccine.”
NHS England and North West Anglia NHS foundation trust have been approached for comment.