Terry Day, co-chair of Waltham Forest Save Our NHS, speaks out over ‘hostile environment’ policies
The government has relentlessly highlighted the so-called abuse of the National Health Service by “health tourists” to distract us from chronic under-funding and under-staffing.
NHS founder Nye Bevan himself addressed the issue of whether or not to charge visitors for care. He wrote: “It would be unwise as well as mean to withhold the free service from the visitor to Britain. How do we distinguish a visitor from anybody else? Are British citizens to carry means of identification everywhere to prove that they are not visitors? Happily, this is one of those occasions when generosity and convenience march together.”
Bevan calculated the cost of health tourism at the time to be approximately 0.4 percent of the overall NHS budget. Today that figure stands at 0.3 percent – around £300million. Compare that with the whopping £2billion spent each year in exorbitant interest and repayments thanks to Private Finance Initiatives (PFI).
Since the 1980s, eligibility for free NHS care has been based on an individual being “ordinarily resident in the UK” such that if you moved here to live, work, or study, you would be entitled to free NHS care.
That changed when Theresa May, as Home Secretary, brought in her “hostile environment” policy toward migrants in 2014. Hospitals became the frontline for immigration enforcement.
Our own local Barts Health NHS Trust, which runs Whipps Cross University Hospital, sends up to 100 patients’ details to the Home Office every week – their way of checking if that patient must pay in advance of receiving any non-urgent treatment. It is the Home Office that has dealt terrible injustices to thousands of members of the ‘Windrush’ generation, many of whom came to build the NHS in the 1950s and 60s.
The impact of the hostile environment policy is threefold; it puts many vulnerable people off seeking healthcare at all, it makes many people delay seeking treatment, and it forces doctors to decide whether someone’s need for care is urgent or not – distracting them from their real job of providing care.
It is time for us all to stand up and call for an NHS which meets the standards Nye Bevan set for us.
Together we can make a difference. More than 600 people and 50 organisations recently signed an open letter to Barts Health on this issue. The trust has, as a result, taken down from their hospital corridors threatening posters, which were instilling fear and putting people off seeking healthcare. They have stopped their pilot project, whereby they asked all women seeking maternity care in Newham for their passports.
And they have also agreed to review the non-health-related information they ask patients to provide.
However, Barts Health has not yet agreed to stop sending patients’ details to the Home Office. While they continue to do that, many vulnerable people will be scared away – either for fear of debt or for fear of being detained and deported.