Health campaigners march against ‘hostile environment’ in the NHS
- Credit: Luke Acton
Protesters have walked from the East London Mosque to Royal London Hospital to oppose the hostile environment in Barts Health NHS Trust.
The ‘hostile environment’ is a Home Office policy designed to make life as difficult as possible for people living in the UK illegally to get them to leave on their own.
According to campaigners, this manifests in the NHS as charging for treatment—upfront for non-emergency care.
They also said immigration checks can force people to avoid seeking treatment for fear that they’ll tip-off authorities.
Dozens of people turned out to oppose the ‘hostile environment’ and any presence of it in east London’s NHS.
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Specifically, they oppose the trust sending patients’ information to the Home Office to check if they are eligible for free treatment.
North East London Save Our NHS (NELSON) says they were told by Barts Health that the trust does this up to a hundred times a week.
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The trust, which provides care for Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest, confirmed that it does this and did not dispute the number.
Dr Jackie Applebee is a GP and chairs the Tower Hamlets Local Medical Committee.
She argues that the policy creates culture of fear that is not only is not cost-effective (costing more to implement than it generates), but risks public health.
“If these people who avoid treatment are carrying infectious diseases—TB and things like that—it has implications for all of us.
“It’s the ones you don’t know about that would be more worrying than the ones that you do. At least the ones you do know about you can actually try and advocate for them.”
“As health professionals, as doctors and nurses, we are not there to be immigration officials. We are there to provide clinical care.”
There was also a fear in the protest, which was organised by NELSON, that any NHS charging is the thin end of a wedge.
Carmen Sumadiwiria is a 26-year-old student nurse at the Royal London Hospital: “One of the reasons I joined the NHS was because it is free at the point of care and I really think that this is being eroded.
“This could easily be the beginning of something much more consequential.”
Councillor Gabriela Salva, a Tower Hamlets councillor from St Peters ward joined the marchers. She urged people to write to their MP to oppose the policy.
“The issue of really trying to enforce those charges not only creates a hostile environment, but also is not what we should be spending our energy and our time on as a public service.
“One of the main issues is that Tower Hamlets has always been a welcoming, open society for people that arrive here and we really want to make sure that is maintained.
“As a council and as residents, I think that needs to be the priority.”
Barts Health deputy chief Shane DeGaris came out to meet the protesters.
Though he didn’t take any questions, he said the trust was working to comply with government regulations while being inclusive and equitable.
He was presented with a letter signed by residents calling on the trust to stop asking patients to prove their immigration status, suspend up-front charging and evaluate charging’s impact on the community, and to stop collaborating with the government’s hostile environment.
A spokeswoman for the trust said: “Like all NHS trusts, we have a long-held responsibility to recover costs from those not eligible for free NHS care. In some circumstances where we are unable to confirm eligibility for free NHS care, we access support from the Home Office to confirm this.
“We take pride in providing vital care for all our patients, and do not wish to deter anyone from seeking treatment. If you need urgent or emergency treatment you will always be treated in a timely way and we will not turn you away.
“For example, all maternity treatment is classed as immediately necessary and is never withheld—it’s really important that everyone attends their appointments.”