A spoof ‘go home’ van drove through Westminster on Wednesday morning, to protest the impact of the hostile environment in healthcare.
Imitating the visuals of the brutal 2013 ad vans that said people in the UK illegally should “go home or face arrest”, the vehicle, organised by charity Doctors of the World (DOTW), reversed the anti migrant rhetoric, instead telling passers by:
“Doctors acting as border guards? 70,000 doctors and patients say ‘NO’ to sharing patient data with the Home Office.”
At the same time, doctors, nurses and midwives gathered outside the home office to demonstrate against the Tories’ attempts to force NHS workers to carry out immigration enforcement duties. Carrying banners, they met the van outside the government building as staff arrived at work, just two days after Sajid Javid replaced Amber Rudd as home secretary following her resignation over the Windrush scandal.
The action cited a petition, signed by 70,000 doctors and patients, calling on Jeremy Hunt and NHS Digital to stop the home office using NHS patients’ personal information to track down and deport migrants.
Anna Miller, UK Policy and Advocacy Manager at DOTW, described the ‘go home’ vans as synonymous with May’s hostile environment policy, saying they “were intended to create an environment of fear, which has now spread to the NHS”.
In 2013, then-home secretary Theresa May was forced to scrap the vans when the initiative was met with shock and disgust, after the vehicles were photographed being driven around six London boroughs with high immigration. May sought to distance herself from the vans at the time, but in many ways they were a precursor to the hostile environment policies that have now created a climate of fear, deprivation and racism for migrants in Britain.
DOTW runs a drop in medical clinic in east London which is attended predominantly by migrants who are unable to access healthcare because of their irregular status, because of gatekeeping behaviour by confused NHS staff or simply out of fear.
Doctors at the clinic regularly see heavily pregnant women who are scared to see a doctor because they know they will be charged several thousand pounds for giving birth and could even be deported for seeking help. These women include survivors of sexual violence, torture and domestic abuse.
Volunteers say they are increasingly seeing women who were unable to access contraception to begin with, considering terminations because they feel they have no alternative — but ironically abortions are now chargeable for migrants too.
In recent years the clinic has also seen an increase in cancer patients unable to access treatment because doctors say it is “non urgent” and thus chargeable. Patients who could have been saved have died as a result.
“Anyone who works in the NHS knows the fundamental role timely healthcare plays in protecting patients, NHS resources and society as a whole,” said NHS GP Dr Peter Gough, who volunteers at the clinic. “These policies, which deliberately frustrate this fundamental principle of effective healthcare delivery, are short-sighted and dangerous.”
He joined the action, he added, to fight “for the right to provide care to our patients” and to oppose policies that undermine the provision of healthcare.
In early 2017, the Department of Health and NHS Digital signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the home office, allowing immigration officials to request patients’ personal details, including home address, date of birth and GP’s details. This information is then used to trace patients, detain them, and in some cases deport them.
In 2017 NHS Digital responded to 5,923 requests from the home office for information on patients suspected of committing immigration offences.
MPs and medical bodies, including the British Medical Association and the Royal College of GPs, have condemned the deal, with the cross-party Health and Social Care Committee calling on NHS Digital to stop sharing patient information immediately.
Later in 2017, the government introduced regulations forcing hospitals to withhold non-urgent care from anyone deemed ineligible for NHS care.
Dr Tim Dudderidge, an NHS doctor and President of DOTW UK, emphasised the importance of patient confidentiality.
“For us it is of great concern that patients with serious health needs are scared of attending NHS services because they fear the Home Office,” he said. “Doctors should not be prevented from caring for patients in need in this way.”
He added: “The Department of Health & Social Care’s guidance is very clear – urgent care should not be withheld from anyone – but in practice these rules are poorly understood by many in the NHS, meaning people living in the UK are going without that life saving care that they are entitled to”.