Jeremy Hunt has announced that from April this year NHS trusts will be legally bound to check the immigration status of patients and charge upfront those who are not eligible for free treatment.
As a nurse this makes me both sad and angry. As a profession we are celebrated for our individual sacrifice, commitment to a job with long hours and low pay, and for the emotional labour we undertake on a daily basis. Soon we nurses will become symbols of fear for people, a barrier to your right to good health.
No longer will we be the safe space, the non-judgemental ear, and the people who hold you in your darkest hour. We will first challenge your legitimacy to be here, challenge your identity, your history and your right to health.
There is a particular brutality to a system that pits nurses against patients, that by design will encourage racial profiling and that will force many migrant nurses to become boarder agents.
I work in a ward that provides elective procedures for around 20 cardiac patients every day. 2011 census data shows that 17 per cent of UK residents do not hold a UK passport, which means almost four patients every day missing their treatment, or being faced with having to prove their eligibility to NHS debt collectors.
That’s four more patients a day who are at high risk of having heart attacks, who need a new battery for their pacemaker, or who desperately need the treatment that will improve their breathing enough so they can walk to the shops again. It means lower quality of life for more people, more A&E admissions, and more families devastated by sudden and avoidable deaths.
Already doctors are publicly refusing to carry out checks and following public involvement there are reports of a GP surgery in East London agreeing that they will never ask to see a passport.
Meanwhile organisations like Docs Not Cops and the Nurses Action Group at Guys and St Thomas’s are starting to stand together against the checks by teaching migrants how to access GP services and producing an information pack to help NHS staff in starting campaigns in their own trusts.
As nurses we can all help. We can talk to our colleagues and make sure they know about the changes, we can lobby our managers to vocally oppose the scheme and put up posters reassuring patients, and we can make it clear that we will not be checking passports ourselves. There will no doubt be severe backlash from management, but if we support each other they will have to listen.
This isn’t the first time nurses will be standing up for the future of the NHS. In 1983 nurses began a two month occupation that halted the closure of Hayes College Hospital. In 2004 nursery nurses in Scotland went on strike for seven weeks to end their poverty wages, and more recently a long running community campaign saved Lewisham A&E from closure.
For those who don’t work in the NHS you can encourage your GP to boycott passport checks, get involved in your local Clinical Commissioning Group and lobby them to do the same, and always refuse to show your passport on request.
Healthcare is a right not a privilege and we must stand together just like they did in 1983, in 2004 and in the ongoing Lewisham Hospital campaign to make sure it remains that way.