Seriously ill migrants are too scared to seek medical treatment in the UK for fear of being deported, MPs were warned today.
Experts told Parliament’s health select committee that data sharing systems between the NHS and Home Office leave many too scared to see a doctor, leading to people dying from treatable illnesses and pregnant women missing out on vital care.
Marissa Begonia of Voice of Domestic Workers, which campaigns for recognition and representation for household workers, was reduced to tears as she explained how one woman died because she was too worried about seeking help for her persistent cough.
“We had one member who died and never sought any hospitalisation or GP because she was too frightened,” she said.
“She was not even aware of what kind of disease she had - she was just coughing very badly and just thought it was a cold.”
Dr Lucinda Haim, a GP at Doctors Of The World, which provides treatment to those excluded from healthcare, said the organisation had seen many cases of pregnant women seeking help from them - or from accident and emergency departments in hospitals - because they were too scared to give their address to a GP.
She told the committee: “Just this morning someone who was eight weeks pregnant was on the phone to us in tears, saying she was too scared to go to a GP, she was too scared to go to an antenatal clinic.
“One woman who was 17 weeks pregnant would not even give her address to us because she was too frightened.
“And in one extreme circumstance we had a woman present to us in labour.”
A ‘memorandum of understanding’ exists between the NHS’s digital service and the government, which allows the Home Office to make disclosure requests to the health service to help trace “immigration offenders and vulnerable people who may be at risk”.
The system came into force in January 2017 and the panel said fewer people were seeking treatment as a direct result of it.
Yusef Azad, director of strategy at the National AIDs Trust, said: “It’s self-evident that a migrant worried about the authorities, if they are told that if they give a GP their address then the immigration authorities might access it, is a deterrent, in our view, to accessing healthcare.”
Labour MP and qualified GP Paul Williams, who continues to work as a doctor in his Stockton South constituency, sits on the health select committee.
He told HuffPost UK: ”Patients should give information to health services safe in the knowledge that it will be protected.
“We’ve seen today that this confidentiality is being breached on an industrial scale.
“Doctors don’t want to see this happening, and we’ve heard heartbreaking stories today of harm being done to patients.”
Dr Williams told government ministers appearing before the panel that the committee had heard powerful evidence of people being put off accessing vital treatment.
Lord O’Shaughnessy, Parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department of Health, said: “We have a system in which whatever your immigration status you are able to access primary and emergency care, and to do so for free, and I think it is important to make that point.
“Clearly the question we have to consider is where immigration offences have occurred, what is a proportionate response to sharing that information.”
He added: “That ability to access care is not diminished, that exists. But at the same time we have to weigh that in the balance with public interest and having a robust immigration system.
“I don’t think these are ever easy judgements, but they are judgements based on the balance of evidence.”
Immigration minister Caroline Noakes told the committee it was important for the Home Office to use “a range of measures” to identify people breaking the law.
“We do not wish to deter anybody from seeking healthcare where necessary, but equally we have a public interest to make sure we know where as many people are as possible,” she added.