Charities have warned that the current hostile environment for migrants means many people living in the UK with unofficial or uncertain status are unlikely to take up coronavirus vaccinations, despite a government push for this to happen.
With estimates of up to 1.2 million people living in the UK without official documentation, this reluctance could make a significant dent in vaccination totals.
The government says it is urging charities and other groups to make contact with people worried about their immigration status who are not registered with a GP to urge them to seek a vaccination. People were also reassured that if they do seek a vaccinations there will be no checks on their rights to live in the country, and there will also be no fee.
However, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said its research shows 43% of migrants would be fearful of seeking healthcare for fear of having their status tested, or being charged. Of those with refugee states, 56% would be wary of accessing healthcare because of fears about data-sharing between the NHS and Home Office, rising to 81% for those with no official status.
The legal policy director of the JCWI, Chai Patel, said that while it was already the law that people without formal immigration status could register with a GP, this was complicated by factors including administrative barriers put up by some GPs, and uncertainty about what data might be shared with the Home Office.
“In law it is fairly simple, everyone is entitled to register with a GP, and anyone who is registered with a GP can get a vaccination” he said. “But we’ve also had almost a decade now of migrants being told to be scared, part of a conscious public campaign by the government. That deterrent effect cannot just be solved by a press release saying: “This time we want you to come in”.
More than 100 charities representing migrants, as well as councils and other organisations, issued a joint call for the hostile environment – now officially called the ‘compliant environment’ – to end, so people can access the vaccine.
From Doctors of the World UK, Anna Miller said that the policy of charging people without formal immigration status for healthcare “has done great damage to the relationship between migrant communities and the NHS, creating a situation where patients don’t trust nurses and doctors and avoid healthcare services”.
Director of the charity Detention Action, Bella Sankey, said: “It is essential for all our health that everyone is able to access vaccines easily and without fear of punishment. But this will only work if the Home Office immediately legislates to end all data sharing with doctors, hospitals and healthcare providers. Without this guarantee, mistrust will prevent vaccine uptake, which will harm us all”.
There are no up to date figures on the number of people living in the UK without official permission. The last Home Office estimate, made in 2005, suggested there were about 430,000 people in the country with no rights to remain. One independent study from 2019 estimated that the number could now total between 800,000 and 1.2 million.
Migrants without official status will be vaccinated in the same order as others in the UK, dependent on their age or medical status. Phase 1 of the programme, which covers offering first injections to the top nine groups seen as most vulnerable to coronavirus, up to all adults aged 50 or older, is scheduled to be completed by May.
Boris Johnson’s spokesperson, said when asked about the concerns of charities: “It’s important that everybody comes forward to take a vaccine in order that we can successfully tackle the virus in all communities throughout the UK. We’ve been clear that it won’t be linked to any form of immigration status”.
A government spokesperson said: “Coronavirus vaccines will be offered to everyone living in the UK free of charge, regardless of immigration status. Those registered with a GP are being contacted at the earliest opportunity and we are working closely with partners and external organisations to contact those who are not registered with a GP to ensure they are also offered the vaccine”.