Health regulators have warned that public health is at ‘serious risk’ due to the NHS passing patient information to the Home Office as part of its drive to trace immigration offenders.
The GMC, Public Health England and England’s National Data Guardian have raised concerns about a Government deal that sees the NHS pass on details of immigration offenders.
GP and chair of the Commons health committee Dr Sarah Wollaston has published correspondence with regulators and the heads of health bodies after asking them about their view on the deal.
The GPC told Pulse that it had ‘significant concerns’ over the data sharing agreement, which appears to lower the bar for sharing confidential patient information.
Pulse reported in January that a deal between NHS Digital, the Department of Health and Home Office meant GP patient details, including full addresses, were being handed over to immigration officials.
Following these reports, Dr Wollaston wrote to the regulators to canvass their opinion.
The correspondence, published late last week, includes evidence from PHE presented to the Government in February, which said: ‘It is the opinion of PHE that this could present a serious risk to public health and has the potential to adversely impact on the discharge by PHE of [Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt’s] statutory health protection duty.’
It also said PHE has been commissioned by the Government to review the impact of the data sharing policy on public health in the next two years.
Meanwhile, a letter from GMC chief executive Charlie Massey confirmed his organisation has written to ask the NHS whether it has considered the potential damage to public trust if data is seen to ‘flow readily to immigration authorities’.
It said: ‘I have written to NHS Digital CEO, Andy Williams to seek assurances that they are giving appropriate consideration to the potential damage to public trust that could arise if it is perceived that patient data flows readily from the NHS to the immigration authorities. ‘
National data guardian Dame Fiona Caldicott said in her letter that she was disappointed not to have been consulted on the agreement between the NHS and the Home Office.
GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey told Pulse: ‘We’ve got significant concerns about the memorandum of understanding between the Home Office and NHS Digital, and the apparent lowering of the public interest threshold for sharing confidential patient information.’
In defence of the deal NHS Digital chair Noel Gordon wrote to the health committee saying an earlier review concluded: ‘NHS Digital does have a sound legal basis to release to the Home Office non-clinical information subject to consideration of public interests and after ensuring agreed safeguards are met.’
The DH said it could not comment further because of pre-election purdah rules, but public health minister Nicola Blackwood’s correspondence with the committee said: ‘We have formalised and refined an information exchange which has been ongoing for many years between the NHS and Home Office to ensure that it is proportionate and within an appropriate legal framework.’
Since the announcement in January, medical charities and practices working with asylum seekers and vulnerable adults have called on all GPs to consider registering vulnerable patients as ‘no fixed abode’.