MPs and doctors slam the Home Office for snooping on NHS patients

Amber Rudd and NHS logo

Since January 2017, NHS Digital has been sharing patients’ names and addresses with the Home Office. The government uses this information to find ‘illegal immigrants’. A parliamentary select committee, which includes MPs and doctors, has raised concerns and tried to stop it happening.

But so far, it hasn’t succeeded.

Select committee report

On 14 April, the Health and Social Care Committee – a commons select committee – published its report [pdf] raising concerns about a memorandum of understanding on data-sharing between NHS Digital and the Home Office.

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The memorandum came into effect on 1 January 2017. It requires NHS Digital to provide the Home Office with patient information for the purpose of ‘tracing immigration offenders’. The committee’s conclusions focused on the implications of sharing patient names and addresses with the Home Office.

The inquiry found that NHS Digital’s leadership:

has not been sufficiently robust in upholding the interests of patients or in maintaining the necessary degree of independence from government.

Sharing patient information

The committee had several concerns about data-sharing, namely that:

  • Information about NHS patients should be confidential.
  • Sharing confidential information might be illegal.
  • The risk that sharing patients’ information with governmental departments may become routine.
  • Undermines public perception of the confidentiality of information given to the NHS.
  • This could deter people from seeking treatment and risks public health.

If patients do not seek treatment, it affects the individual and presents public health risks through the potential spread of undiagnosed diseases. It also risks a potential greater cost to the NHS for more expensive emergency treatment in the future.

Concerns shared by doctors and charities

These concerns are shared by many doctors and charities, who say data-sharing is already having a detrimental impact. Patients are not going to the NHS. Doctors feel pressured to share patient information with the Home Office.

The chief executive of National Aids Trust (NAT), Deborah Gold, said:

As an HIV charity, we understand the importance of treating infectious conditions and limiting the spread of epidemics. When people can’t trust the NHS with their data, that good work is undone and we face a public health risk.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said that the Home Office was displaying a “blatant disregard” for the GP-patient relationship. She said:

It is treating GP patient data like the Yellow Pages, and we are calling on NHS Digital to take urgent measures to suspend the agreement that is allowing them to do so.

She warned that data-sharing was having “increasingly alarming” consequences and risked “alienating highly vulnerable patients”.

In response to the findings, chief executive of NHS Digital Sarah Wilkinson said:

We will consider the Health Select Committee’s report carefully and will take into account any new evidence as it becomes available, but we have been through a rigorous process to assess the release of demographic data to the Home Office.

This has established that there is a legal basis for the release and has assured us that it is in the public interest to share limited demographic data in very specific circumstances.

A more thorough review

In 2017, the Home Office made 6,171 immigration tracing requests [pdf, p10].

On 29 January, the committee requested that NHS Digital suspend its involvement in the memorandum. It also called for a more thorough review of data-sharing.

The Home Office rejected the request in a letter dated 23 February.

Not just scaremongering

The inquiry discovered that NHS Digital is already considering sharing patient data with other government departments [pdf, p20], and the committee suspects this is likely to become routine.

We should all be concerned about this. The Home Office is behaving like a police state and using doctors and NHS as informers. Theresa May instigated this ‘hostile environment’ policy when she was home secretary. It both intimidates illegal immigrants and stops them using public services. And it could be the thin edge of the wedge in the march towards a very frightening future.

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