Almost a month ago I read about Albert Thompson, a UK resident for 44 years who has paid taxes for over three decades, being refused treatment for prostate cancer. After major surgery and just before his first radiotherapy session, he was taken aside and told that he would need a British passport - or else he would have to cough up £54,000.
Albert doesn’t have £54,000. In fact, he has no money at all.
Albert (this isn’t his real name) arrived in the UK at the age of 17 from Jamaica with his mother, who was a nurse. They were two of half a million people from the West Indies who arrived in Britain between 1948 and 1970 – many of whom were recruited by the government because it was short of workers to run the transport system, postal service and hospitals. Others were returning soldiers who had fought for Britain during the Second World War.
Many people like Albert don’t realise they need to go through the process of naturalisation until they lose their jobs, homes and right to health treatment. There is no legal aid for this kind of case, and the cost of naturalisation is prohibitively expensive for a group that is often amongst the poorest in our society. That’s not to mention the Kafkaesque levels of bureaucracy and demands for what seems like impossible amounts of ‘evidence’ of uninterrupted residency. How proof of 35 years’ National Insurance Contributions doesn’t cut it beats me.
So that’s how I found myself on a Saturday morning starting a petition which has quickly gained, at the time of writing, 230,000 signatures. And this week, after Theresa May’s refused to intervene, I launched a GoFundMe page to crowdsource money from kind people around the world for Albert’s treatment. We shouldn’t have to do this, but we must.
The media has, since the petition started, reported on the widespread outrage around Albert’s case. Jeremy Corbyn bought the issue up at PMQs, prompting Theresa May to later write: “No urgent treatment should ever be withheld or delayed by the NHS regardless of ability of willingness to pay”.
At the same time, our Prime Minister deftly wiped her hands of the issue by saying that this is the Royal Marsden’s decision to make. That’s perhaps slightly unfair given the hospital is just following regulations by the Department of Health and Social Care that state that someone needs to be proven to be ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK to get free health treatment. Unless it’s considered urgent, that is, and - after the flurry of media attention – Albert’s case has been deemed to be not so.
Oncologists across Britain remain sceptical about that particular retrospective decision, citing cases like this as driven by “ill- thought out, politically motivated policy that has nothing to do with clinical judgment”. A recent, spine-chilling BMJ article even sets out the case that charging for treatment like this actually costs more in the long run, also revealing that not only does the Home Office and NHS Digital share information, but GPs “are being asked to deliver deportation notices from the Home Office to their patients, thereby extending border control duties into healthcare”.
The University of Oxford-based Migration Observatory reports that there could be up to 57,000 people potentially at risk of similar problems to Albert’s: “although they arrived from Commonwealth countries before 1971, they have never applied for a British passport or been naturalised. Their difficulties are only beginning to emerge now as the Government’s tightened immigration regime inadvertently hits the wrong targets.
I think what they are referring to there is the ‘hostile environment’ that Theresa May has been charmingly boasting about creating for the past five years – the one breaking the spirits and destroying the lives of many innocent people, needlessly, right now.
This is an issue that I feel very close to. I’ve just spent three years caring for people with cancer, one of whom was my father who passed away in August last year.
Dad had a loving family around him, and we all worked very hard to navigate his treatment and the NHS, but it was a complex process and an incredibly difficult time - even for those with good support.
So I can’t imagine the despair that Albert must be feeling right now. Cancer treatment is - from what I have seen close-up - exhausting, life-threatening and utterly miserable.
Albert has already had blood cancer lymphoma and has been unable to work in his job as a mechanic for ten years due to the effects of the illness. To have to fight in the first place through thinly veiled institutional racism for treatment that you would never have questioned your entitlement to would beat many a younger, fitter person.
So that’s why I believe we have to stand up to the increasingly harsh landscape that the Home Office is creating for the innocent people that have contributed meaningfully to this country for many years, often in jobs that hold us all together.
I don’t know if my petition will do anything to make the Government listen – this would set a difficult precedent for other cases like Albert’s – or what effect the treatment will have on Albert’s cancer if we do manage to crowdfund the money. But I know indirectly via Praxis, the charity that is working with him, that the public support that has poured out for his case has helped him go to bed with a smile on his face. Perhaps sometimes, sadly - at the darkest of times - that’s all one can hope for.
You can stand with Albert and thousands of others here.
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