Ebola heroes to protest over migrants being denied NHS healthcare

This article was taken from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/23/ebola-heroes-to-protest-over-migrants-being-denied-nhs-healthcare

By Denis Campbell Health policy editor

Around 20 medical staff plan to hand back their decorations and deliver a letter to Downing Street

British doctors, nurses and midwives hailed as heroes for tackling Ebola are handing back the medals they received from the government in protest at undocumented migrants being denied free NHS care.

Around 20 NHS staff will on Tuesday return their medals to the Cabinet Office and hand in a letter to Downing Street, telling Theresa May of their “great sorrow and shame” that “hostile environment” immigration policies which she initiated are leading to needless suffering and early death.

A tough regime of checks on patients’ eligibility for NHS care, and insistence that migrants – often penniless – pay what can be huge sums upfront before they can be treated, began in 2014, when May was the home secretary. But it was tightened last year, when she was prime minister.

The duty to pay includes most forms of hospital care except A&E, or care from GPs or at public health clinics. It hit the headlines earlier this year when the Guardian revealed that the Royal Marsden hospital in London had told Albert Thompson, a Caribbean-born man who had lived in Britain for 44 years, he had to pay £54,000 before he could be treated for advanced prostate cancer.

Dr Neal Russell, a paediatrician who is giving back his medal, said the checks and charges were “inhumane” and a betrayal of the NHS’s founding principle that care should be free to patients at their point of need.

“When we received our medals in 2015 we were proud to do so, proud to represent the UK and the NHS and proud of what the British government did to help the Ebola relief effort in west Africa in 2014-15.

“But four years on, we have started to realise that [while] with one hand they [ministers] were involved in this humanitarian response, they were [also] putting in place policies that would deny people healthcare.”

Some patients’ health has been seriously seriously affected, and others have died, after being denied treatment because they were deemed ineligible and could not afford to pay for it in advance, he added.

“These policies are unethical and inhumane. They have already led to people being denied life-saving care. I know of patients with infectious diseases, including TB, who have been deterred from accessing care and who have later died,” said Russell.

In another case, a baby girl suffered a lifelong setback to her health after her mother, who did not access NHS antenatal care after being told she would have to pay for it, developed complications during her labour. “They have created a climate of fear about accessing NHS care,” he added.

There is growing concern among NHS staff that they are being turned against their will into “border guards” by having to decide who is eligible for free NHS care based on their immigration status. Many of those who have been unable to access care have been refused asylum in the UK or overstayed a work, academic or visitor’s visa, often by many years.

Lord Dubs, the humanitarian campaigner who fled to Britain in the 1930s to escape the Nazis, will join the health professionals as they hand in their letter at No 10 at lunchtime. “It is disturbing that the immigration checks in the NHS mean that many migrants, refugees and other vulnerable people are in practice all too often being denied access to life-saving medical care,” said Dubs.

More than 3,000 members of the armed forces, NHS staff, charity workers and others received the medals in 2015 in recognition of their role in helping to contain the outbreak of the Ebola virus that claimed about 11,000 lives in west Africa. It was the first time Britain has struck a medal to mark involvement in a humanitarian crisis, rather than a military conflict.

David Cameron, the then prime minister, presented some of the medals at a reception in Downing Street. Britain owed the volunteers “an immense debt of gratitude” for putting their own lives at risk to save others, he said.

“These policies are short-sighted and there is no evidence that they save the NHS money. They place immigration enforcement above public health and effective delivery of healthcare. It is absolutely right that doctors and nurses speak out about the impact they are having on our hospitals,” said Anna Miller, UK policy and advocacy manager at Doctors of the World, a charity that provides free healthcare at a clinic in London to those who cannot otherwise get it.

“Our doctors and nurses have seen patients denied cancer treatment, cardiac surgery, palliative care and pregnant women too afraid to access maternity services.

“These include people fleeing from conflict and persecution, victims of trafficking and destitute people living on the streets with no means to feed themselves,” added Miller.

Rebecca Daniels of Medact, a public health campaigning charity, said: “We have heard time and time again from health professionals that patients are being racially profiled, that they are afraid to seek treatment and are being denied vital care.”

Miller added: “The regulations introduced in 2017 have intensified the impact of these policies. For a long time, patients who are not eligible for free NHS care have been billed for treatment, but we are now seeing healthcare – including cancer treatment, cardiac surgery and palliative care – being withheld.”

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