The Commons Health Committee has urged NHS Digital to ditch an agreement that allows the Home Office to use GP patient data to establish an individual’s immigration status.
In a letter to NHS Digital addressed to chief executive Sarah Wilkinson, committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston – who is a GP herself – said that the current memorandum of understanding between NHS Digital and the Home Office must be suspended immediately.
Under the MoU, the Home Office is able to make disclosure requests to NHS Digital for the purpose of tracing immigration offenders and vulnerable people who may be at risk.
However, Dr Wollaston wrote that this is putting patients off consenting to their data being shared, which in turn might compromise ‘data sharing in other vital areas such as medical research’.
GP leaders said that the MoU is also affecting the patient-doctor relationship.
Dr Wollaston said: ‘I write on behalf of the Committee, in light of the evidence which we have received in the course of our inquiry, to request that NHS Digital immediately withdraw from the memorandum of understanding, and cease sharing data with the Home Office for immigration tracing purposes, whilst it conducts a full review of its decision on the public interest test for such requests.’
She added: ‘We accept that the Home Office has a responsibility to seek to identify immigration offenders, to re-establish contact with them, and to take the required enforcement action. We understand why the Home Office seeks information to enable it to carry out its immigration enforcement role. NHS Digital, and its predecessor organisations, undoubtedly hold information which the Home Office would view as useful. However, the NHS should not place that above the serious adverse consequences of such a decision.’
It comes after GP with the Doctors of the World charity Dr Lucinda Hiam told the Health committee earlier this month that the MoU could turn the ‘GP into a place that [immigrants] can also fear’, if they see their ‘immigration status’ turned against them.
In the letter, Ms Wollaston also said that advice from Public Health England (PHE) had gone unnoticed. PHE had warned that sharing information based on confidential health reports for immigration purposes ‘could present a serious risk to public health and has the potential to adversely impact on the discharge by PHE of the secretary of state’s statutory health protection duty’.
Commenting on Ms Wollaston letter, the BMA ethics committee chair Dr John Chisholm said: ‘We know this agreement is already having a real effect on patients – and in turn their relationship with doctors. That relationship is built on a foundation of trust, and the arrangement between NHS Digital, the Home Office and the Department of Health is eroding this.
‘If patients are refusing to visit the doctor for fear of repercussions from the Home Office, it is not only a danger to that individual’s health, but it could also pose a threat to the wider wellbeing of the public if communicable infectious diseases are being diagnosed and treated at a later stage.’