NHS staff police patients

Migrants treated with suspicion by workers

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NHS staff who treat migrants with suspicion are being used as tools of the government’s hostile environment policy, it has been warned.

Refugees and asylum seekers have told researchers they face hostility and barriers when they try to access UK health services – including treatment they perceive as racist.

This includes being loudly questioned about their immigration status in front of other people and ignored by receptionists while queuing because they wear a hijab.

The study, by Manchester University academics, also found language barriers that led to patients having the wrong teeth removed, pregnant women not knowing what to do when they go into labour, children being kept off school to interpret for parents and people not knowing how to call an ambulance.

Paying upfront

Since October 2017, some migrants – including certain refused asylum seekers – have been expected to pay upfront for hospital treatment and some community services, but the rules are confusing and frequently change.

Primary healthcare should be free for everyone but many asylum seekers and refugees reported problems, including being asked for identification documents when registering with a GP, which goes against NHS guidance.

Study co-author Louise Tomkow, a doctor and PhD researcher, said: “Some study participants felt certain treatment had been racist and that they were being judged.

“Broadly speaking the government’s hostile environment policy is being embedded into healthcare. Health workers are being asked to police the borders and question certain people’s access to care. Patients are placed under suspicion by staff who want to protect the NHS and some vulnerable categories of people face barriers to care as a result.

“We know there’s public support for providing a service that is free at the point of use and we know this is important for public health. There’s a moral argument for it but also a practical argument – we don’t want people to be unwell and untreated as that is not good for society.”

The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that despite being expected to live on just £37 a week, asylum seekers were regularly expected to pay prescription charges because they were not given the correct forms, and participants had beeen asked to pay for dentistry.

“Undermines NHS principles”

Tomkow is a member of the Manchester branch of Medact, a group made up of medical workers that has called for the hostile enviroment to be taken out of healthcare.

James Skinner, a nurse and the access to healthcare campaigner at Medact, said: “The hostile environment is radically changing the way NHS services are delivered. We are now seeing hospital staff checking patients’ immigration status before providing care, people being charged up front for treatment, and NHS digital sharing patient data with the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes.

“These polices undermine the principle of universal care on which the NHS was founded – a service based on need, not on eligibility or ability to pay.

“This research highlights the fear and confusion these policies cause, leading to people being too afraid to access care they need even when they would not be required to pay for it.

“The government must act now to stop the harm the hostile environment is causing, it must scrap charges for NHS care, end all data sharing with the Home Office, and work to make the NHS welcoming environment.”

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