Undocumented migrants dying of coronavirus because they’re too afraid to seek help, MPs and charities warn

Exclusive: Sixty cross-party MPs call for immediate suspension of NHS charging and immigration checks

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Saturday 18 April 2020 09:16 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

Undocumented migrants are dying from Covid-19 because they are too afraid to seek help, charities and MPs have warned amid renewed calls for the Home Office to suspend NHS immigration checks.

In one case, a Filipino man died from suspected coronavirus last week after not accessing healthcare for fears of being reported to the Home Office, according to campaigners.

Sixty cross-party MPs have written to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, calling for the immediate suspension of charging for migrants and all associated data-sharing and immigration checks, which they say are undermining the government’s efforts to respond to the pandemic.

The man, known only as Elvis, is said to have died in his home on 8 April after suffering from a fever and a cough for two weeks. His wife, also an undocumented Filipino national, is currently suffering with similar symptoms but is also too afraid to access healthcare.

Before he fell ill, Elvis, who had been in the UK for about 10 years, was working as a cleaner and sending money back to his family in the Philippines. His wife, a domestic worker, was reportedly in their home with her husband’s body for 24 hours before an undertaker arrived to take the corpse away. She did not want to speak with the media.

Susan Cueva, of the Kanlangun Filipino Consortium, a charity that is now supporting Elvis’s wife with food deliveries, told The Independent that although Elvis was seriously ill, he was too afraid to go to the hospital for fear that he would be charged for his treatment, which he could not afford, and that he would be reported to immigration authorities.

Ms Cueva said the man’s wife was devastated by his death and terrified about how she will sustain herself without him: “Having lived with her partner for 10 years, she really doesn’t know what to do with her life here, especially as she’s undocumented. She is so terrified and really traumatised. She can’t even talk to people, she just starts crying. Because of her grief she doesn’t even know if she’s feeling better or not.

“They lived normally in this country. They couldn’t declare their work or access public services, but they managed to live very self-sufficiently. People employed them, and they were able to support their family back in the Philippines and rent a place and be part of the community.”

She added: “We are aware that there are many undocumented workers in the UK who are in this situation. They have lost their jobs due to the lockdown and are ineligible for government support. They often live in crowded conditions with other undocumented workers and they are too scared to go to a doctor or hospital.”

The letter from MPs to the health secretary raises Elvis’s case and states “migrant communities – who are disproportionately at risk of exclusion, stigma and discrimination – are not currently receiving the necessary safeguards”.

The current NHS charging policy, introduced in 2018 as part of the “hostile environment”, charges non-EU patients 50 per cent more than it costs the NHS to treat them and requires hospital staff to demand proof of entitlement to free healthcare.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, ministers introduced regulations on 29 January that meant no charge could be made to an overseas visitor for diagnosis or treatment of the virus, saying it was “very important, for public health protection, that overseas visitors are not deterred from seeking treatment for Covid-19”.

However, the MPs warned that while this was a “welcome step” it did “not go far enough”, adding: “It does not undo years of hostile environment policies, in which migrants have been told that they will be charged for healthcare or faced with immigration enforcement when accessing public services. In the present moment, this undermines the government’s efforts to respond to the pandemic.”

The letter, coordinated by Labour MPs Apsana Begum, Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Zarah Sultana, points out that other countries, including Ireland, Portugal and South Korea, have already taken steps to improve access for their migrant communities, in recognition of its importance in combating the spread of Covid-19.

“The NHS was founded on the principle of universal healthcare, and we now have the opportunity to lead the world in ensuring that everyone who needs care can access it safely and without fear during this crisis,” it states.

“It is vital that a clear message is sent to our migrant communities that they can seek care when they need it, that they are included in our society and have a part to play in response to this crisis.”

The letter calls on ministers to immediately suspend all NHS charging for migrants, suspend all data sharing between health services and the Home Office, and implement a firewall to ensure patient data is not shared with the Home Office or other bodies for the purposes of immigration enforcement.

It follows a similar demand to the government earlier this week from medical groups, including the British Medical Association and Doctors of the World UK, warning that the measures risk “undermining national efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19”.

Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, said: “Migrants are at the front line of this pandemic. They disproportionately make up NHS staff and other key-worker roles, but the hostile environment has led to migrants – like Elvis – dying from Covid-19 without seeking healthcare.”

Christine Jardine, home affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said it was “vital” that no one who needs medical help is prevented from accessing healthcare, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, adding: “Sadly, after the awful experience of the Windrush scandal, far too many migrants are put off seeking treatment.”

Brian Dikoff, a legal caseworker at Migrants Organise, said: “This hostile environment in the NHS is a real disaster for many of our members, and is hindering the collective response to the pandemic. Everybody has to know, with confidence, that they can access healthcare safely. For this, the government must suspend charging and data sharing immediately, and restore the inclusive principles of the NHS.”

A government spokesperson said: “The government has added coronavirus to the list of infectious diseases for which everyone from overseas can receive treatment or testing free of charge. Given that charges do not apply for coronavirus treatment, NHS trusts have been reminded that immigration checks to establish entitlement to free care are therefore not required.

“We have clearly communicated this and will soon be publishing information about the free treatment of coronavirus in around 40 different languages, to ensure the messaging is clear.”

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