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A DECADE of hostile environment policies could harm Britain’s recovery from the pandemic as hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants face barriers to the vaccine, public health campaigners warn.
More than 10 million people have already received at least one dose of the vaccine in Britain, but campaigners claim that the country’s population of undocumented migrants — estimated at between 800,000 and one million — risks being left out of the programme.
The government has specified that everyone in Britain is entitled to receive the Covid-19 vaccination free of charge regardless of their immigration status.
However public health and migrant rights groups warn this message isn’t cutting through deep-rooted fears of the NHS instilled by nearly a decade of hostile environment policies in healthcare — and the “majority” of undocumented migrants are unlikely to come forward.
As part of the government’s policies to curb immigration, some migrant groups must pay up-front charges for treatment, and NHS debts can be a basis to reject an immigration application.
Doctors of the World head of policy and advocacy Anna Miller said the NHS’s charging regime and data sharing with the Home Office has eroded trust, making people fear doctors and nurses.
“And now, as the NHS seeks to vaccinate everyone in the country, we are seeing the impact of this policy.”
In order to get the vaccine, undocumented migrants must register with a local GP or have an NHS number otherwise they will not be invited to get the jab.
However Regularise founder Munya Radzi warned the “majority” are unlikely to do so.
“In my experience people do want to get the vaccine, people do want to be part of the solution to control the spread of the virus but it’s the fear of what happens to me if I go to get this vaccine,” he said.
“Unless they get a strong assurance that their data won’t be shared they will not go. It’s a decade almost since the hostile environment — [the fear] is not going to go away.”
Another barrier undocumented migrants face is the active refusal of some GP practices to register them, despite the fact everyone is entitled to register.
Huseyin, a Kurdish national born in Turkey who has been in Britain for 12 years and is undocumented, told the Star that he was turned away from a GP practice in Camden, north London, last month after being asked to provide documents and his address.
He said the incident left him feeling like “our life is not worth anything” and that the receptionist acted “like an immigration officer.”
Many people are too afraid to register for the vaccine, Huseyin added. “They have a joke about it — if you go to get your vaccine you get your deportation at the same time.
“And we are not talking about 100 or 200 people, there are maybe a million people in the same situation at the moment. If they want to get rid of this virus they have to offer the vaccine to everyone.”
When approached for comment about the incident, the North Central London Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) told the Morning Star that there is no contractual requirement for GPs to ask patients to prove identity, address or an NHS number in order to register them.
A spokesperson said the CCG will be in contact with the surgery to seek assurance that it “continues to register patients in the correct way.”
Huseyin’s experience is not isolated. Last year, a survey of GPs by a refugee charity in Haringey, north London, found that two-thirds refused to register a patient who either had no British residency status, no formal ID or no recognised proof of address.
Ms Miller said this is down to a lack of clear direction from NHS England and the government that GPs should stop requesting this type of information.
She added these barriers could harm Britain’s overall recovery from the virus as “any subsection of the population that’s not taking the vaccine is a problem.”
On Thursday campaigners put their concerns directly to vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi in a webinar hosted by Regularise.
The minister reiterated that the Covid vaccine is free of charge to everyone in Britain, stressing that “the immigration status of a patient is not relevant.”
However Mr Zahawi repeatedly failed to address questions about the impact of hostile environment policies on vaccine uptake among undocumented people.
Addressing the minister, Regularise’s Mr Radzi said: “A lot more needs to be done. Just telling people that they can go and get these vaccines is not enough, it’s clearly not enough.”
Doctors of the World is calling for all NHS charging to be suspended alongside a new public information campaign “so that everyone feels safe and able to access Covid-19 testing, treatment and vaccines.”
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has also called for a “comprehensive firewall” to be set up between the NHS and the Home Office to reassure people that their data will not be shared.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “People who are registered with a GP are being contacted at the earliest opportunity and we are working closely with partners and external organisations to contact people, including migrants, who are not registered with a GP to ensure they are offered the vaccine.”
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