Government ministers have provided assurances that people in the UK who are not here legally will not face legal consequences when presenting for their COVID-19 vaccination.
The vaccine is free of charge for everyone in the UK regardless of their immigration status, but officials have warned that there are other barriers that may prevent take-up of the vaccine.
Speaking today, the government has urged people not yet registered with a GP office to contact their local doctor’s surgery in advance of receiving the coronavirus vaccine.
Despite the announcement, immigration charities have sought further assurances that there will be no legal consequences for people living here without documentation.
No immigration check requirements required for vaccine eligibility
Early indications have shown that the vaccine is proving effective in vaccinated populations, including against newer strains of the virus. Leading scientists state that the vaccine is reducing the rate of transmission of the virus, which has been crucial in cutting the number of cases.
The government’s vaccination delivery plan outlines the importance of reaching all areas of the population in an effort to eliminate the virus and protect vulnerable communities, helping to return to normality.
As part of this plan, the news that there will be no immigration status checks has been cautiously welcomed.
The plan was subdivided into four elements (supply, prioritisation, places, and people). By mid-February, the programme aims to have offered the first dose of the two-part vaccine to all vulnerable groups (members of which represent 88% of the total deaths so far).
In order to reach all members of the UK population eligible for the vaccine, individuals must register at a GP surgery.
In the coronavirus vaccine delivery plan, the government identified groups that were unlikely to be registered with a GP, including those who are homeless, members of the Traveller community and undocumented immigrants.
Today’s announcement is an advancement of the government’s commitment to reach all demographics as an effort to offer the vaccine to everyone.
Existing guidance for overseas visitors to the UK indicates that no person will be required to provide proof of immigration status in order to be tested, treated or vaccinated if they have COVID-19.
In general, to register with a GP practice, it is not essential to provide proof of nationality or immigration status.
Further, official NHS guidelines state that a decision on patient registration should not be made on the basis of not providing proof of identity or address.
Immigration charities say more reassurances are required
In a recent bulletin, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that it is vital that governments worldwide make “innovative” efforts to reach some of the most vulnerable populations, including those who have refugee, asylum seeker, or undocumented migrant status.
The recommendation of the WHO is full co-operation between national and local healthcare bodies and providers. They have also suggested outreach and education programmes tailored to people (especially immigrant populations) from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Despite these best practice recommendations, some charities and campaigners in the UK have expressed reservations at today’s announcement.
Research from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has found that 43% of migrants living in the UK are worried that seeking healthcare may result in a negative decision on their immigration status.
According to a tweet posted today, the JCWI believe that:
“Government’s so-called ‘vaccine amnesty’ is not policy change + will do nothing to allay the fears many migrants have.
NHS data-sharing with the Home Office & the migrant charging regime must end – government *must* stop putting immigration control above public health”
Chai Patel (legal policy director of JCWI) further stated that despite the official guidelines regarding easy access to NHS services, in practice, there are multiple obstacles preventing treatment.
Even people with legal immigrant visas have expressed some fear or concern about what may happen to their data.
Fears of data sharing between the NHS and the Home Office resulting in potential deportations have been major barriers to accessing healthcare and charities are concerned that this will impact on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
How the coronavirus vaccine rollout will work
Despite its commitment to provide vaccines regardless of immigration status, the UK government has not prioritised immigrants in its vaccine delivery plan, unlike some other countries.
A United Nations spokesperson, Shabia Mantoo, stated that “No one is protected unless everyone is protected.” The UN has argued for the need for comprehensive and inclusive vaccination programmes, regardless of immigration status.
The German government has stated that asylum seekers who are currently in temporary accommodation shelters will be in the second tier of the vaccination priority list.
Jordan was one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate people with refugee and asylum seeker status in an effort to keep rates of COVID-19 as low as possible.
Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security in the US has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring full access to a vaccine for every person living in the United States, with no immigration conditions attached.
Other countries, including Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon have indicated that they intend to vaccinate everyone seeking a vaccination but have not provided details on plans to reach people without official residency.
Further clarity on vaccine required
Lack of clarity on how the government plans to ensure equal access to the vaccine is urgently required in the UK if the vaccine rollout is to be successful.
Scientific evidence is clear that in order to be effective, there should be a high uptake across the population in order to reduce the risk of transmission and decrease pressure on the health service.
It remains to be seen whether the government will provide further outreach or reassurances for people with undocumented immigration status.
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The government has announced that immigration status checks will not be required when providing the COVID-19 vaccine. [Image: Unsplash]
The JCWI has warned that further clarification is urgently needed to assure immigrants without official documentation that they will not face deportation as a result of seeking the coronavirus vaccine.
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