More than one million undocumented immigrants in Britain will be able to access coronavirus vaccines regardless of their UK immigration status, the government has announced. Under current UK laws, any person is allowed to register with a doctor and access free, frontline medical care irrespective of their UK immigration status.
However, some government ministers have warned that undocumented immigrants will still be scared to receive coronavirus vaccines for fear of being deported. It’s understood that some data gathered on patients will be passed to the Home Office, raising concerns that this information will be used to deport people in the future.
More than 140 charities, faith groups, local councils and medical organisations have written to the government calling for a ‘concrete end’ to the UK’s hostile environment policy towards immigrants.
No immigration enforcement action
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Coronavirus vaccines will be offered to everyone living in the UK free of charge, regardless of UK immigration status.”
“Those registered with a GP (general practitioner) are being contacted at the earliest opportunity and we are working closely with partners and external organisations to contact those who are not registered with a GP to ensure they are also offered the vaccine,” the spokesperson added.
However, many groups, including the Refugee Council, The Faculty of Public Health, Trades Union Congress, Medact, Migrants Organise, and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) say many could still be left unvaccinated, unless a ‘firewall’ is put in place to stop patient data being shared and used for UK immigration enforcement.
The exact number of illegal immigrants in the UK is unknown, but is estimated to be up to 1.3 million. There are concerns among UK government officials that large numbers of people within black African and south Asian communities will be reluctant to receive vaccinations because of mistrust.
Incompatible with public health
James Skinner, a former NHS nurse who is now programme lead for health and human rights at the charity Medact, said: “The announcement by the government is a clear admission that the ‘hostile environment’ is incompatible with public health.”
“At the start of the pandemic we warned that the fear created by NHS charging and data sharing would prevent migrant communities accessing treatment for coronavirus, yet it has taken almost a year for the government to even acknowledge the harm these policies are causing,” Mr Skinner added.
Mr Skinner went on to say that there will still be a degree of distrust among migrant communities toward government assurances given that the NHS continues to charge people for healthcare and share patient information with the Home Office.
Research shows migrant fears
According to JCWI research, conducted in January, 43% of migrants said they would be scared to access healthcare for fear of being detained by immigration authorities or having their data shared with the Home Office.
56% of refugees surveyed said that they would be afraid to access healthcare, with the risk of their data being shared with the Home Office a primary concern. Meanwhile, the research found that 17% of people with indefinite leave to remain would be apprehensive about receiving healthcare.
A further 24% with a temporary UK visa – including a work visa or spouse visa – said they would be scared, while 81% without any kind of UK immigration status would avoid healthcare altogether, according to the JCWI research.
Head of policy at Doctors of the World UK, Anna Miller, said: “While we welcome the government proactively encouraging migrants to come forward to register with a GP and receive the vaccine, and GP practices to register patients, this exemption doesn’t go far enough to undo the fear and mistrust created by the hostile environment.”
“The migrant charging policy has done great damage to the relationship between migrant communities and the NHS, creating a situation where patients don’t trust nurses and doctors and avoid healthcare services,” Ms Miller added.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “As we’ve said before, coming forward to receive a vaccine will not be linked to any immigration status, so those who are here illegally can come forward to receive a vaccine. That is obviously important for us to tackle the transmission rate of the virus across the UK.”
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