The High Court has granted a legal challenge against a NHS-Home Office deal to hand over patient data to immigration officials.
The challenge, put forward by Migrants Rights Net (MRN), a UK charity advocating for the rights of migrants, will now go to a full hearing.
Currently the Home Office makes thousands of requests each year through the deal with NHS Digital and the Department of Health and only a fraction – around 3 per cent – are turned down.
In a statement MRN said: “MRN is delighted at the decision and looks forward to taking the legal challenge forward, helping to protect the right of all patients to confidentiality.
“We need a health system that everyone can trust, regardless of their immigration status.
The news comes a day after NHS Digital and ministers rejected a call by the health committee to end the deal which sees patient names, addresses and date of birth handed over to the Home Office on request.
A joint response from Home Office minister for immigration, Caroline Nokes, and health minister Lord O'Shaughnessy said opponents were underplaying the need for immigration enforcement.
They added that no one should expect their personal, non-medical information should remain private to the Government when using a public service, writing: "We do not consider that a person using the NHS can have a reasonable expectation when using this taxpayer-funded service that their non-medical data, which lies at the lower end of the privacy spectrum, will not be shared securely between other officers within government in exercise of their lawful powers in cases such as these."
The Health Committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston said NHS Digital had failed to consider the public interest in maintaining the fundamental principle of patient confidentiality or the ethical implications of sacrificing it.
In the letter, Dr Wollaston said the NHS “undoubtedly” holds information useful to the Home Office, but it “should not place that above the serious adverse consequences of such a decision”.
She added: “We are seriously concerned about the way NHS Digital has approached its duty to respect and promote confidentiality.
“We call for a halt to the present system of information-sharing and a full review of the original memorandum of understanding with the Home Office.”
Previously MPs were also told that illegal immigrants were “too frightened” to access healthcare because of the data-sharing agreement.
One domestic worker reportedly died because she was too afraid to see a doctor out of fear that her immigration status would be shared with the Home Office.
The British Medical Association (BMA) warned that the deal was “already having a real effect on patients” and their trust in their doctors.
“That relationship is built on a foundation of trust, and the arrangement between NHS Digital, the Home Office and the Department of Health is eroding this”, Dr John Chisholm, the BMA’s ethics chair, said.
“If patients are refusing to visit the doctor for fear of repercussions from the Home Office, it is not only a danger to that individual’s health, but it could also pose a threat to the wellbeing of the public if communicable infectious diseases are being diagnosed and treated at a later stage.”
The Home Office declined to comment on ongoing legal proceedings. The Department of Health has been contacted for comment.
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