15 Jul 2021

GP surgeries wrongfully rejecting undocumented migrants, leaving many unable to get Covid jab

Health and Social Care Editor

Undocumented migrants could be left without access to the Covid vaccine as scores of GP surgeries are wrongfully blocking them from registering, a study has found.

Data obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), and shared exclusively with Channel 4 News and the Independent, shows more than two thirds of the GPs they surveyed rejected attempts to register without proof of address, identification or legal immigration status.

Without being able to register with a GP, undocumented migrants may struggle to get access to the Covid-19 vaccines, exposing a large swathe of the population to the virus.

By law, a GP surgery can only refuse a patient’s registration if it has “reasonable grounds” to do so. NHS policies in England and Scotland state that not having proof of address, ID or immigration status do not constitute reasonable grounds for refusal. The BIJ also said the Welsh government had confirmed proof of ID and address were not required for registration.

Dr Krishna Kasaraneni, from the British Medical Association (BMA) GP committee, told Channel 4 News that barriers preventing undocumented migrants from accessing Covid vaccines should be removed.

GP surgeries

It’s estimated there are up to 1.2 million undocumented migrants in the UK, according to a 2019 Pew report.

Jenna is an undocumented Filipino migrant who has recently been refused registration at a GP surgery.

She told Channel 4 News: “At first they asked for proof of address, but I told them I don’t have any.”

She said she was worried and stressed in case she gets sick and she does not know whether or not she will be able to get the vaccine.

The BIJ contacted about a third of GP practices in 10 cities in Scotland, England and Wales that have large populations of people born outside the UK and found that only 24 per cent would register someone without proof of address, identification or legal immigration status.

Almost two-thirds, 62%, said they would not register the patient, while the remaining 14% said they were unsure whether they could.

The BIJ’s findings also suggest anyone who is not signed up to a GP could encounter difficulties trying to get a Covid vaccine.

When calling the NHS England coronavirus helpline to ask about booking a vaccine appointment, a person would be directed to register with a surgery, the BIJ said.

The online vaccine booking form for England also asks for a person’s NHS number and their personal details to ensure they match up with those of a registered patient.

There are similar national booking systems in Scotland and Wales.

Pop-up clinics

Sporadic pop-up vaccine clinics have attracted thousands of undocmented migrants as a way to get round the GP registration barrier.

Averil Pooten-Watan worked with Barts Health NHS Trust in London to set up a pop-up clinic after she became aware that members of her church’s congregation were not vaccinated.

When she organised the clinic, she said 100 vaccine spots were filled within 30 minutes, adding the people that came forward were “living in the shadows”, undocumented and not registered with a GP.

She added: “They weren’t hesitant about taking the vaccine. They were very clear that they wanted to help be part of the solution to the problem we are having.

“They were asking us, where do we get the vaccine, how will we get the vaccine if we don’t have a GP?”

Vaccine barriers

Dr Kasaraneni, from the BMA GP committee, said: “Nobody should have barriers in front of them when they’re trying to access vaccinations in the current climate.

“Everyone is entitled to free general practice services at the point of need. So irrespective of their migration status, they should be able to register with a GP practice and access the vaccinations.”

He suggested the reason some GP practices were not following the NHS guidelines was down to a “lack” of “information”.

We contacted some of the clinical commissioning groups in the areas of the study and have not received a response.