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NHS Digital and DHSC refuse to suspend migrant data-sharing agreement with the Home Office, despite concerns raised by MPs and doctors

Published 28th February 2018

In a joint letter with the Home Office to the Health Select Committee (HSC), Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said “we do not consider that, on the present state of the evidence, there is warrant for a significant change of approach – or specifically for terminating” the Memorandum of Understating (MoU) which allows NHS Digital (NHSD) to share patient information, including home address, with the Home Office. This conclusion was echoed in a letter from NHSD which described the evidence that the data-sharing deterred undocumented migrants from seeking healthcare as “anecdotal”.

In light of the responses received, the HSC has decided to hold a further evidence session.

Impact on migrant health seeking behaviour and public health

Last month, the HSC called on NHSD to immediately suspend the MoU after hearing evidence from doctors and patient groups that the data-sharing arrangement made undocumented migrants too afraid to access healthcare services. The HSC accused NHSD of “comprehensively” ignoring the advice of Public Health England, as well as concerns raised by the General Medical Council and the National Data Guardian.

Lucy Jones, Director of Programmes at Doctors of the World UK, said: “In our clinic we see the devastating impact of the policy of using NHS patient records to track down and arrest migrants on a daily basis. Only this morning our clinic team met urgently about the increase in vulnerable pregnant women too frightened to go to antenatal care appointments. Whilst patient information is being shared, we cannot reassure them confidentiality will be respected.

Our doctors, nurses and patient groups have, on many occasions, provided evidence of the life or death impact of this arrangement.  The Health Select Committee and the National Data Guardian found the impact on vulnerable people living in the UK – including victims of trafficking and pregnant women to be compelling and significant yet NHS Digital is continuing to ignore them.”

Impact on patient confidentiality

The response from DHSC, the Home Office and NHSD fails to address the HSC’s concern that the agreement breaches the General Medical Council’s guidance on confidentiality and the NHS Confidentiality Code of Practice.

Acknowledging the breach, NHSD referred to an NHS England review of the NHS Code “which may result in greater alignment of the [NHS] Code of Practice with the [legal bases for the MoU].”

The HSC Chair, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, had expressed concern about efforts to amend medical confidentiality guidance. Following the inquiry, Wollaston tweeted: “Really was not for @NHSDigital to in effect rewrite the principles underpinning confidentiality.”

Jones said: “It is deeply concerning that NHS Digital and DHSC are not listening to these concerns and will continue to breach patient confidentiality despite the Health Select Committee call to stop immediately. With doctors and nurses we’ll continue our #StopSharing campaign to call on NHS Digital to protect the principles of a confidential health service.”

Media enquiries to Ella Abraham (eabraham@doctorsoftheworld.org.uk)