The key to accessing the NHS and opening the door to healthcare in the UK has always been to register with your local GP. We all know the importance of doing so, and for many of us it is just another routine task. However, a recent investigation has found that shocking numbers of vulnerable people with insecure immigration status are being turned away by GPs.
As we battle on against Covid-19 and continue the rollout of the vaccination programme, this is deeply concerning. In spite of NHS guidelines unequivocally stating that everyone has a right to be registered and to consult a GP when in need of medical care – regardless of immigration status – this is clearly not happening. Being denied GP registration means that some people do not receive timely medical care or are left managing chronic conditions alone.
Barriers like this to accessing healthcare have created issues and complications for those looking to get vaccinated against Covid-19. In some instances, people who are acutely vulnerable to the virus have been unable to book their vaccine through the NHS online system.
Recent research undertaken by Doctors of The World found that socially excluded groups, such as asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, the homeless and sex workers, are already at increased risk of Covid-19 as well as being less likely to access timely healthcare if they become unwell. Frustratingly, this situation will likely worsen as the same groups struggle to access the Covid-19 vaccination programme.
As we continue to work to defeat this virus and vaccinate Britain, improving access to GP surgeries is key to ensuring vulnerable communities are supported to access the vaccine in order to ultimately protect us all.
In this vein, Doctors of the World has established its Safe Surgeries Initiative, with the aim of ensuring that every GP surgery follows NHS guidelines and registers everyone within their community, regardless of the patient’s immigration status or personal circumstances.
Alongside this, the Safe Surgeries Initiative supports surgeries to be welcoming and open towards the community they serve, by reviewing their registration policy, displaying posters in multiple languages, and ensuring all staff can call on an interpreter when needed.
Although the new research on GP registration shows that the number of incorrect refusals to register patients remains unacceptably high across the UK, there are reasons to be hopeful. The research found that surgeries in Manchester were most likely to register a patient when called, and in the last year, 50 of the city’s GPs have joined the Safe Surgeries Initiative.
The local clinical commissioning group working with Doctors of the World has delivered training to receptionists and GP practice staff all across the city, and tireless work has been undertaken to raise awareness of the importance of registering with a GP.
GPs and all those working in our health service have worked relentlessly throughout the past 16 months to care for our communities, and we want to ensure everyone can access our world-class health service. The pandemic has forced us to address many long-standing issues in our country, and if we are to learn the lessons then the government must work to break down the unfair and unjust barriers that prevent many from accessing the NHS.
Alongside supporting GP registration, the government should also launch a public-facing campaign, in many community languages, highlighting the entitlement of everyone to free primary care. This, accompanied by much-needed clarity around data-sharing in the NHS, would help people make an informed decision about the vaccine.
Registering with a GP is a right, however it is clearly not a certainty. Together, we want to continue to make positive strides in Manchester to ensure that vulnerable people across our city can register with their GP, while Doctors of the World continue their work across the UK.
Afzal Khan is Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, and Matteo Besana is the Covid-19 Advocacy Project lead, Doctors of the World UK