Ministers announced last month that there would be no checks on immigration status at vaccine centres and that undocumented people in the UK could come forward to receive a vaccine.
But a parliamentary watchdog has raised concerns about the effectiveness of the government’s outreach to up to 1.3 million undocumented migrants in Britain, warning that the hostile environment – a series of measures designed to block people without immigration status from accessing services – is putting the ongoing success of the vaccine rollout at risk.
A letter to the vaccines minister from Tory peer Lord Sheikh and Labour MP Sarah Owen – who head up the All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) on hate crime – expressed “deep concern” that large numbers of undocumented people who are “highly vulnerable and disproportionately impacted by Covid-19” were also some of the most hesitant to reach out to receive it.
The letter demands to know what steps are in place to proactively reach undocumented migrants, how many of this cohort have so far received the vaccine and what assurances are being provided about their safety if they come forward to receive the vaccine.
The intervention adds to growing pressure on ministers to provide more support to GP surgeries to register everybody, and to ensure that undocumented migrants are properly reached by their ongoing public information campaign.
Last month, more than 140 charities, faith groups, local authorities and medical organisations called for a suspension of all NHS migrants charges during the pandemic, as well as a “firewall” to prevent patient data from being shared with the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes.
Research by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) in January found that 43 per cent of migrants surveyed would be afraid to access healthcare for fear of being charged. or having their data shared with the Home Office.
It also indicated that 17 per cent of people with indefinite leave to remain would be fearful, a quarter of those with a temporary visa such as a work or spouse visa and 81 per cent of those without any form of status.
John Chisholm, head of the British Medical Association (BMA)’s ethics committee, has previously stated that for the vaccination programme to be successful, it was “vital” that there were “absolutely no barriers” preventing migrant groups coming forward.
Co-chair of the APPG on hate crime Ms Owen said the vaccine amnesty was welcome, but warned that just telling undocumented people that they didn’t need an NHS number in order to get the vaccine “wouldn’t allay any fears”, pointing out that most didn’t know their NHS number anyway.
“The hostile environment has built up a fear of government and authority amongst migrants, and during a pandemic, this is a massive risk to public health. No one’s safe until we’re all safe,” she added, calling on ministers to “urgently kick start” a new public information campaign aimed at harder to reach groups.
Lord Sheikh, also a co-chair of the APPG, added: “The speed at which the country is being vaccinated is certainly impressive, but if we are to truly beat this pandemic then we need to continue working together to reach everyone in society regardless of their immigration status.
“Undocumented immigrants are some of the most vulnerable in society and have been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. We need to better support those who are on the ground such as community and faith leaders to build trust so that we can all be safe.”
The latest data shows that as of 3 March, 20,982,571 people had received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, but there is currently no data on how many undocumented people are among them.
Zoe Gardner, policy adviser at JCWI, said it was “wholly unsurprising” that the government’s vaccine rollout was being hampered by “longstanding policies of exclusion and hostility towards migrants”.
“While the NHS charging regime and data-sharing with the Home Office remain firmly in place, people will still be afraid to come forward for treatment. For the sake of everyone’s health, the hostile environment must be immediately scrapped,” she added.
The government has been approached for comment.