In December 2020, the first official COVID vaccine was administered in the UK. Since then, 4 million people have received the first jab, with the elderly and some key workers being prioritised. However, migrants rights campaigners claim that unequal access due to immigration concerns could put lives at risk.
Despite the massive vaccine rollout, some key workers have not received the vaccine as they are undocumented or do not have the funds to pay for healthcare services. This comes after the government increased migrant NHS charges to £624 in October 2020. There are some immigrants who cannot afford to pay and fear exile if they try to get the vaccine.
The introduction of these additional charges has continued discussions regarding ‘hostile environment’ policies, which were first established in 2012. The policies impact many other areas of life for asylum seekers, immigrants, and refugees, such as renting and access to welfare support, generally making life in the UK harder for those from overseas and in-turn sewing greater divisions within communities.
The policies also enable the government to outsource immigration enforcement by sharing private data with third-party immigration enforcement teams. In the health and social care sector, GPs and health bodies are permitted to perform immigration checks. These checks have deterred migrants from registering with a GP and receiving the help they need, for fear of being reported to the Home Office.
Despite the massive vaccine rollout, some key workers have not received the vaccine as they are undocumented or do not have the funds to pay for healthcare services
The hostile environment policies have received a significant amount of backlash from migrant rights campaigners, including the UK’s Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI). In an official letter to the Home Secretary, they have suggested changes regarding the vaccination programme, which requires GP registration in order to receive this jab. This limits migrant’s healthcare access further, as many worry about repercussions such as detainment or even deportation.
The JCWI also called for the suspension of migrant NHS charges and discussed introducing a ‘comprehensive firewall’ between the Home Office and healthcare to protect migrants during the pandemic.
There have also been calls to protect undocumented immigrants living in the UK, which the Pew Research Centre estimates totals around 800,000 to 1.2 million people. The majority will not be registered with a GP and may not have received any form of healthcare due to the threats they face.
The Status Now Network, which comprises over 80 charities has written an open letter to the government, asking for change and writing ‘perhaps over a million people in the UK, are excluded from access to the vaccination programme.’
The Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) supported these changes, stating ‘Any vaccination programme, to be effective, has to cover virtually everyone, including undocumented people.’
Asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their right to seek asylum in the UK also have access to primary health care. However, receiving the jab may prove difficult and unsafe as current access to vaccine sites requires travel. Fear of being reported and potentially having their claim affected could prevent them from accessing a GP.
The majority of undocumented migrants will not be registered with a GP and may not have received any form of healthcare due to the threats they face
There are also hundreds of asylum seekers stationed in former military barracks where they are not permitted to leave due to harsh quarantine restrictions. Protests have begun at the sites, with residents voicing their fears of contracting COVID-19 with the lack of social distancing in such close and dire living quarters.
Clare Mosely, the founder of charity Care4Calais expressed her thoughts on the situation stating ‘Asylum seekers have fled terrifying dangers, wars, and persecution, they need support and protection, instead our Government is treating them with cruelty.’
A bill that calls for indefinite leave to remain status to be given to all migrant health and social care staff who have a temporary UK visa is yet to have its second reading. Legislation such as this would go some way to protecting those who have served the NHS throughout the pandemic despite insecure immigration status. However much more needs to be done to protect all who are at risk, with those subject to the hostile environment near the top of the list.