UK Govt’s Move to Use Medical Records to Trace Illegal Immigrants Raises Questions

From November 2017 to January 2018, British health officials agreed to share around 1,300 requests for information about immigrants.


The United Kingdom government is turning towards doctors in an effort to get information about immigrants who may have flouted immigration rules in the country.

Letters made public in February this year show that UK politicians had differences with immigration officials over an agreement for sharing information. The agreement, signed in 2016, gave the UK government access to personal information that was compiled by family doctors of the country. The data, however, excluded medical details, the Associated Press reported.

Describing the move as a big breach of medical ethics, doctors treating and working with refugees and asylum-seekers have said that it is not a doctor’s duty to enforce immigration rules. From November 2017 to January 2018, health officials agreed to share around 1,300 requests for information, out of which health officials found 501 cases where patients had a different address from the one stated in Home Office records, the report added.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) inked between the National Health Service (NHS), the Department of Health and the Home Office that came into effect on Jan. 1, 2018 allowed the NHS to share non-clinical data of patients, like date of birth or last known address, reported the Register.

“We understand the government has a job to do, but going into health records to get patient information is not OK,” Lucy Jones, director of programs at Doctors of the World United Kingdom, was quoted as saying by AP.

Jones added that the fact that a patient’s data is being shared with government authorities breached the trust that patients have in doctors.

Although a parliamentary health committee has criticized the issue, calling it “unacceptable” and asking for suspension of the agreement, the immigration department has pushed these concerns aside. It argues that sharing of such information permits the United Kingdom to remove people who might pose a danger to the public.

Many top medical organizations, including the Royal College of General Practitioners, Public Health England and the General Medical Council, have criticized the information-sharing deal, saying that it could hamper the health of many people who are vulnerable, causing outbreaks of diseases underground and harming health care for all.

According to the British government, protecting the country’s borders is the topmost concern. “We believe that the release of (patient) information is lawful and proportionate action in pursuit of the effective enforcement of the U.K.’s immigration policy,” Caroline Noakes, the Minister of State for Immigration, and James O’Shaughnessy, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Health, said in response to the lawmakers’ concerns, according to AP.

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