More than 30 organisations have written an open letter to the Home Secretary calling on the government to suspend its ‘hostile environment’ policy to protect the vulnerable, and prioritise public health during the coronavirus outbreak.
The policy, introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary in 2012, seeks to reduce the number of those with no right to remain in the UK through measures including data-sharing across government bodies and no recourse to public funds.
The letter, signed by groups including Hackney Migrant Centre, Liberty, and Right to Remain, states: ‘There is significant evidence that both NHS charging and data-sharing between the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care stops migrants from accessing healthcare, even in the case where exemptions exist for infectious diseases.’
The Home Office has said anyone suffering from Covid-19 will be tested and treated free of charge, regardless of their immigration status, as it has been added to the list of ‘communicable diseases’.
However, the letter states this response does not go far enough. It suggests that, even in light of this exemption, migrants remain deterred because the fear of data-sharing is so engrained, they lack information and they can still be charged for other tests and treatments under ‘no recourse to public funds’. The letter reads: ‘to be effective this must be accompanied by commitments to end data-sharing and a public information campaign designed to reassure people that accessing care is safe.’
Satbir Singh, chief executive of Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and one of the letter’s signatories, said: ‘The evidence could not be clearer – restricting any group’s access to healthcare is bad not only for their health, but for that of the wider public too. We are only as protected as the least protected among us. In the midst of this unprecedented global health crisis, the Government must not only allow, but proactively encourage migrants to seek the healthcare they need.’
The letter also calls for a number of other measures to protect migrants’ rights during the coronavirus outbreak including: the suspension of ‘no recourse to public funds’, the modification or extension of visas to allow for self-isolation and safe return, and releasing all those detained under immigration powers to help minimise the spread of Covid-19.