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Public Health England sounds data sharing warning



Prospect of Home Office obtaining patient data raises worries over deterring migrants from seeking healthcare treatment

Health chiefs have joined a protest over NHS data sharing rules, warning that asylum seekers, refugees and migrants will be deterred from seeking treatment.

Public Health England (PHE) fears the handing over to the Home Office of personal data from patients - as part of a Government crackdown on illegal immigration – will have “unintended serious consequences”. 

Its response to NHS Digital’s Back Office Review – published as part of its correspondence on the issue – the organisation has pointed out the NHS has given patients “explicit assurances about confidentiality” when they provide information to doctors – but this promise is now under threat.

“This has been the foundation of the public health system in the UK since the creation of the NHS,” the PHE stated.

“If patients have concerns that their personal information, even simple identifiers, could be shared with law enforcement or immigration enforcement agencies for the purposes of pursuing them for actual or alleged breaches of law or immigration rules, then this risks creating a real barrier to their engagement. 

“In particular, this may impact upon asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented migrants or migrant groups legally in the UK who may be distrustful of sharing personal information for fear that it could be accessed by migration enforcement to locate them or their friends and family.”

Ensuring that such groups use healthcare is vital not only for their own health, but to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, PHE added.

Backing protest

In effect, the organisation has thrown its weight behind a protest made by a medical charity called Doctors of the World, in alliance with the human rights group Liberty and the National Aids Trust.

It runs clinics for undocumented migrants, victims of trafficking and asylum seekers, helping patients with everything from pregnancy to cancer. They are patients afraid to turn to the NHS, fearful that a visit to the doctor could mean their contact details are given to the Home Office and might result in deportation.

Doctors of the World has issued advice on “safe surgeries”, detailing steps doctors can take to sidestep the Home Office requests to share data, including by keeping patients' addresses off NHS records.

PHE’s objection was revealed in response to a letter from the Health Select Committee, which investigated the rules in the last Parliament. However,the outgoing Government dismissed the concerns: in a letter, junior health minister Nicola Blackwood insisted there were “strong safeguards in place” and that no clinical data was shared.

“In all cases, a tracing request will only be triggered when other avenues available to the authorities to locate the individual have been unsuccessful,” the minister wrote.

 In January, it was revealed that the Home Office had obtained the personal data of thousands of NHS patients, under a previously undisclosed agreement with NHS Digital. The agreement allows the Home Office to request non-clinical details including names, dates of birth and the individuals’ last known addresses.

According to the Department of Health, the Home Office made 8,127 requests for data in the first 11 months of 2016, which led to 5,854 people being traced by immigration enforcement teams.

Image by Daniel Sone, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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