Ministers have rejected a call from MPs to immediately suspend the disclosure of confidential NHS patient data to the Home Office to trace potential immigration offenders despite evidence it is deterring migrants in England from seeking medical help.
A joint letter from Home Office and health ministers to the chair of the Commons health select committee discloses that 1,297 requests for non-clinical details of patients, including home addresses, were made in the past three months by immigration officials trying to trace individuals with whom they had lost contact.
The letter from the immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, and the health minister, James O’Shaughnessy, accuses MPs on the committee of not giving “due weight” to the effective enforcement of Britain’s immigration laws when they called in January for the immediate suspension of the practice.
Dr Sarah Wollaston, the health committee chair, called for the suspension of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the Home Office and NHS Digital after hearing evidence from doctors and patient groups that undocumented migrants, including pregnant women, were too afraid to go to a doctor for fear their details would be passed to immigration enforcement.
Lucy Jones, of Doctors of the World UK, said: “In our clinic we see the devastating impact of the policy of using NHS patient records to track down and arrest migrants on a daily basis. Only this morning our clinic team met urgently about the increase in vulnerable pregnant women too frightened to go to antenatal care appointments. Whilst patient information is being shared, we cannot reassure them confidentiality will be respected.”
The ministers’ letter, published by the committee on Wednesday, says such anecdotal evidence needs to be treated with caution and they have asked Public Health England (PHE) to establish the facts and report back by January 2019.
“However, we do not consider that, on the present state of the evidence, there is warrant for a significant change of approach – or specifically terminating the MoU and ending the important public interest function it serves.”
The ministers claim they are respecting patient confidentiality by not allowing the disclosure of medical information, and insist that not all those traced as a result of the data will face removal or deportation.
The letter discloses that 545 of the 1,297 requests for information made between November 2017 and January 2018 confirmed that the current address of the patient matched that on the immigration database.
In 501 cases NHS Digital provided a different address for the patient, “highlighting the value of this source of address information to the Home Office”. The NHS could not trace 248 cases from its records and three were recorded as having died.
“Even in cases where the address details for the individual are confirmed as the same the information is still of significant value; it provides confidence that the Home Office has the right basis for making further inquiries and can direct resources accordingly,” the letter says.
The ministers admit they hav no hard evidence of a “direct causal link” between the information provided and undocumented migrants leaving the UK. They do, however, promise to keep the data-sharing arrangement under review.
Deborah Gold, the chief executive of the National Aids Trust, said NAT would fight this “irresponsible decision”.
“I am dismayed to learn that in spite of the health committee’s recommendation, NHS Digital will continue this practice,” she said.
“Patient confidentiality must be protected. We believe that sharing data with the Home Office for immigration purposes scares people away from healthcare. As well as jeopardising the lives of individuals, this endangers public health, as those with infectious conditions avoid diagnosis and treatment and therefore remain contagious.”