On Sunday, The Health and Social Care Committee released a report criticising a data-sharing deal between the NHS and the Home Office. This deal – a “Memorandum of Understanding” – has been in place since the start of 2017. In it, NHS Digital agrees to share patient data with the Home Office if it’s requested for the purpose of immigration control, among other reasons. This is despite NHS Digital’s own guidance on confidentiality stating the patient data should only be shared without patient consent in the case of serious crime. NGOs such as Doctors of the World argue that “the deal makes vulnerable patients scared of getting healthcare”. The report similarly concludes that the deal undermines principles of confidentiality between patients and clinicians and poses a risk to public health because it deters migrant patients from seeking healthcare. It calls on NHS Digital to “suspend its participation”, to ensure compatibility with the NHS Code of Confidentiality and to consider how the Memorandum impacts public interest in consultation with experts in medical ethics.
Among the evidence heard by the Committee is advice from Public Health England that “the perceived or actual sharing of identifiable information from confidential health records in order to trace individuals in relation to possible immigration offences…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”.
Sarah Teather, Director of JRS UK, stated that: “This report provides further damning evidence that data-sharing between the NHS and the Home Office dangerously undermines doctor-patient confidentiality, getting healthcare professionals to act as border guards. From our experience of working with vulnerable migrants, we know that fear of immigration control can deter them from seeking vital treatment.”
This is not the first time that the Health and Social Care Committee has warned NHS Digital to pause and take stock of the dangers for doctor-patient confidentiality and public health; it did so in January 2018, but NHS Digital refused. NHS England is currently conducting a review of its Code of Confidentiality, so the report is partly calling on NHS Digital to stop sharing patient data with the Home Office until the review is finished, so that a decision about the deal can be made in light of it.
The 2017 Data Protection Bill provides important context to the Memorandum. In its current form, it exempts from data protection all information sought for the purposes of immigration control. In practice, it is difficult to define exactly what will fall into this category, which may mean that data protection laws do not obviously limit the information that the Home Office can demand from the NHS.
This ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ is one of many policies that forms part of the ‘Hostile Environment agenda’, which aims to make life in the UK as difficult as possible for undocumented migrants. For more information on the effects of the ‘Hostile Environment agenda’ read our blog: ‘Painful reality of the hostile environment‘