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A highly controversial NHS policy rolled out in the week beginning the 23rd October. Once again putting immigrants into the spotlight. The new policy will require Doctors to ask for proof of entitlement to free healthcare for some NHS services. Whether it’s a passport or a visa, anyone seeking non-emergency care will be required to prove they are entitled to free health service. Anyone without the right to the NHS will be asked to pay for their treatment up front.
The policy which was first piloted in February of this year was met with contempt and accusations of xenophobic profiling. There was even a recent march by campaign group ‘Patients Not Passports.’ The protest march saw NHS staff band together against a system that positions them as border guards.
The policy has brought into question issues of doctor confidentiality and what exact role the NHS will play in the coming years. Furthermore, critics of the scheme have pointed out that requiring a passport for medical treatment will be detrimental for victims of sex trafficking and human slavery, as the need for a passport will stop them from feeling comfortable to talk with their doctor. This cautious, climate of fear and unease will likely cover those with precarious immigration statuses and therefore some of the more vulnerable people in our society. It essentially incentivises the exclusion of specific individuals from care – it is inevitable that such a push will have serious negative ramifications for those in need of treatment.
The policy of upfront visa checks and payment was introduced by Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt. It is part of a larger effort to decrease the burden of illegal immigrants and ‘medical tourism’ on the NHS. Medical tourism is the practice of travelling abroad for low priced or free medical treatment. The practice does cost the NHS government over a billion pounds a year and is commonly espoused in anti-immigration rhetoric across the UK.
However, a report conducted by Full Fact (the UK’s independent fact-checking charity) found health tourism accounted for 0.3% of the NHS spending every year. The continuing cuts to the NHS’ budget has been the cause of a lot of friction between NHS staff members and the government – evidenced by the Junior Doctor strike in early 2017. It is not anticipated that the savings from this practice will go towards the salary of nurses and doctors on the frontline of this new passport checking service, many of whom will remain on the pay-freeze implemented by our current government.
The passport checks are not the only immigrant-targeted policy in place with the NHS. The Immigration Healthcare Surcharge (IHS) is now part of the visa process for anyone coming to the country from outside of the European Economic Area and staying in excess of 6 months – typically those with a view to settle in the UK. This can cost visa applicants anywhere from £150 to £1000, already adding to the annually rising cost of visa applications. Only time will tell if the constant penalisation and demonization of immigrants will discourage people from coming to the UK when it has left the EU and finds itself in need of skilled migrants.