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The hostile environment could block undocumented migrants from accessing Covid vaccine

Migrant rights groups professionals call on government to suspend NHS charges and immigration checks

by Bethany Rielly

CAMPAIGNERS are calling for a vaccination programme “that works for everyone” amid fears that immigration policies are preventing undocumented migrants from accessing the life-saving jab. 

Healthcare professionals have repeatedly called on the government to suspend NHS charges and immigration checks, claiming that the measures are “dangerous” and undermine efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19. 

Now migrant rights groups have raised concerns that these policies could prevent vulnerable communities from being able to access the vaccine.

In a letter to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) called for the charges to be suspended, and for a “comprehensive firewall” to be set up between healthcare and the Home Office during the pandemic.

Since 2015, non-EU migrants have had to pay a health surcharge of £400 per person per year, while also facing immigration checks. NHS debt can also be used as a reason to deny visa applications.

Although the government has included Covid-19 in a list of exceptions, public health charities found that this failed to quell fears among migrant communities. 

“Unfortunately, while the NHS charging and data-sharing regime remains in place, we know that many migrants won’t get the vaccine for fear of arrest, deportation or extortionate fees,” JCWI public affairs and campaigns officer Minnie Rahman said today.

“These same policies have already had disastrous effects during the pandemic and long before it – preventing people from registering for GPs, accessing emergency care, or seeking treatment for coronavirus.”

JCWI warned that immigration polices “pose a risk for vaccine delivery, particularly as misinformation about the charging regime creates complexity in GP registrations.”

The vaccination programme requires everyone who receives the jab to be registered with a GP. 

While primary healthcare is legally available to everyone regardless of their immigration status, campaign group Regularise reported a case where an individual, who wanted to sign up for the vaccination programme, was told they could not register with a GP practice because they didn’t have the valid documents. 

“That’s where a substantial information campaign needs to come in, both for GPs when they register people and for migrant communities – to tell them that they should not be turned away,” Migrants Organise access to healthcare organiser Aliya Yule told the Morning Star. 

A campaigner with public health charity Medact and former NHS nurse James Skinner warned that fears instilled by hostile environment policies in healthcare will mean that “people most in need of the vaccine will be unable to get it, putting them at risk of catching coronavirus.”

He added: “We need to see the government, local authorities, and Public Health Teams doing everything in their power to roll back the hostile environment, through publicity campaigns, ensuring everyone can access the vaccine regardless of immigration status or ID, and a public commitment to a firewall between NHS data and the Home Office.”

The Department for Health and Social care has been contacted for comment. 

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