To track down people in Britain who may have broken immigration rules, the government is turning to a new and controversial source of information: doctors.
Doctors who work with refugees and asylum-seekers have described the move as a major breach of medical ethics, saying it isn’t up to physicians to enforce immigration rules.
In letters recently made public, politicians sparred with immigration officials over a data-sharing agreement quietly signed in 2016 that gives the government access to personal information collected by the country’s family doctors.
Medical details are excluded.
A parliamentary health committee condemned the situation as “unacceptable,” calling for the agreement to be suspended.
But Britain’s immigration department has dismissed those concerns, arguing that such data sharing allows the UK to remove people “who might pose a danger to the public.”
Medical workers back the health committee’s viewpoint. “We understand the government has a job to do, but going into health records to get patient information is not OK,” said Lucy Jones, director of programmes at Doctors of the World UK.
Several leading medical organisations, including the Royal College of General Practitioners, Public Health England and the General Medical Council, have all slammed the data-sharing deal, saying it could worsen the health of vulnerable people and drive disease outbreaks underground, hurting health care for all.
The British government, however, says protecting its borders outweighs those concerns.
“We believe that the release of (patient) information is lawful and proportionate action in pursuit of the effective enforcement of the UK’s immigration policy,” wrote Caroline Noakes, the minister of state for immigration, and James O’Shaughnessy, parliamentary undersecretary of state for health, responding to lawmaker’s concerns.
They cited the case of a Pakistani citizen who overstayed a visitor’s visa. After the Pakistani was refused residency in 2013, contact with the Home Office was broken off. Immigration officials sent a request to health services, which revealed a new address.
From last November to January, health officials agreed to nearly 1,300 requests for information. Of those, health officials found 501 cases where patients had a different address from the one in Home Office records.