NHS bosses have handed over the personal information of patients, en masse, to the government. The health service’s data handler, NHS Digital, has passed sensitive data, including names, addresses and dates of birth to the Home Office. All on the orders of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the Department of Health. And the “agreement” between the two departments has been going on for years behind the public’s back. But the government has only just revealed this.
On 24 January, the government published a “Memorandum of Understanding between the Home Office, NHS Digital and the Department of Health”. It stated that the document:
formalises existing arrangements for the Home Office to make disclosure requests to NHS Digital for the purpose of tracing immigration offenders and vulnerable people who may be at risk.
It details the “tracing requests” the Home Office will make for personal patient information to NHS Digital. It will use these when it suspects a patient has committed an offence under the Immigration Act 1971. The Home Office requests will require NHS Digital to release a patient’s name and last known address. Also their date of birth, primary care service area code, GP contact details, and date of registration with the NHS.
Spying on thousands
But according [paywall] to the Health Service Journal (HSJ), the departments have already been sharing patient information for three years. HSJ said that, between January 2014 and November 2016, the Home Office made 16,689 tracing requests to NHS Digital. Even though the memo only officially came into effect on 1 January 2017. And as The Guardian reported, Home Office requests to NHS Digital have risen threefold since 2014.
The memo itself states that the sharing of information between the departments is of “high public interest”, because:
…immigration offenders also harm the economic wellbeing of the country, it is in the public interest that limited UK resources and public services (including the NHS, jobs, schools, housing) are protected from unnecessary financial and resource pressures.
A hostile environment
But this comes at a time when the government is creating a “hostile environment” right across the board. For anyone it considers a threat to UK “economic wellbeing”.
As The Canary previously reported, the government is forcibly deporting foreign nationals, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers using secret charter flights. And the person cannot appeal the government’s decision until after their deportation. Historically the ‘deport first, appeal later’ rules only applied to foreign national criminals. But last year the government changed the law so it applied to all migrants. On top of this, the government is also forcing schools to collect information on children’s country of birth and nationality.
A government spokesperson said:
Access to this information is strictly controlled, with strong legal safeguards. No clinical information is shared, and before anything at all is shared there has to be a legal basis to do so. Immigration officials only contact the NHS when other reasonable attempts to locate people have been unsuccessful.
Bastardisation of the NHS?
But the campaign group Movement For Justice told The Canary:
This policy is another example of the government’s ever increasing hostile environment for immigrants. This will leave thousands of people too scared to seek medical help for fear of NHS collaboration with the Home Office. Our NHS should be free and safe for all to access. We need to see a mass campaign of non-cooperation by medical and support staff in the NHS to defend its integrity and ensure healthcare is accessible to all who need it.
The rate at which the government is cracking down on anyone it considers unwelcome in the UK is highly worrying. And it appears to be intentionally feeding into the public disquiet that surrounded the Brexit vote. But the architects of the NHS created it to provide healthcare to everyone, “regardless of wealth”. And when the government uses it as a weapon against people – people who may have fled war, human rights abuses, and oppression – then something is seriously broken within UK society.
– Sign the petition to stop deportation charter flights.
– Support Movement For Justice.
Featured image via Flickr