The practise of data sharing between government departments and public bodies has ong caused concern among migrant rights organisations. According to advocacy organisations, the most recent government plan might prevent migrants from receiving essential medical treatment.
Migrant rights organisations are alarmed by the United Kingdom’s proposal to add a reference number related to an individual’s immigration status to their health records. They are concerned about possible monitoring and the aggravation of an already hostile climate towards migrants.
According to a report published last week in the British newspaper The Guardian, the personal demographics services, an electronic database of patient demographic data that contains the name, address, date of birth, and National Health Service (NHS) number of patients, would now include Home Office reference numbers.
People who submit a visa application are given a number known as the Home Office reference number, commonly referred to as the unique application number.
For access to health services, many visa applicants who want to stay in the UK for more than six months must pay an immigration health fee. Who pays the immigration health surcharge is disclosed to the National Health Service (NHS).
“Data-sharing within the NHS will further erode migrants’ patients’ data rights and expose migrant communities to greater surveillance,” Fizza Qureshi, CEO of the Migrants’ Rights Network (MRN) told InfoMigrants.
“The rationale behind why migrants’ data needs to be accessed by the Home Office is unclear. However, this new process feels discriminatory, and will likely be used as an immigration enforcement tool to further harm migrants, and deter them from accessing vital healthcare,” Qureshi said.
MRN also expressed concern over maternity services being heavily monitored by immigration enforcement and the impact on those who require maternity services.
A Home Office spokesperson refuted these claims and told The Guardian, “The Home Office shares data with the NHS to ensure individuals can access healthcare free of charge where they are entitled to treatment. The use of a reference number is an established part of these data-sharing arrangements and there is no new reference number being introduced. To suggest otherwise is wrong.”
Previous attempts to access patient data
The Home Office’s efforts to get access to information about non-citizens who utilise NHS services have generated controversy before.
The NHS was compelled by law to provide non-clinical patient records such last known residences, dates of birth, and doctor details in 2016, according to a privately signed memorandum of understanding that was uncovered months later and The Guardian reported.
The Home Office apparently received 8,000 private patient records from the NHS.
The contentious data-sharing programme between the NHS and the Home Office was put on hold in 2018 as a result of fierce resistance from medical associations, health charities, and migrant rights groups that claimed it discouraged people from seeking medical attention.
“We have previously challenged data-sharing arrangements … and the revival of this practice for immigration enforcement purposes is highly concerning. We will be monitoring the situation closely to decide our next course of action and in the meantime, we call for greater transparency about these plans,” MRN’s Querishi said.