INACTION from the UK Government surrounding the protection of migrant populations at risk from Covid-19 will worsen “a crisis that needs a truly public health-led response”, instead of a tired system that serves some and shuts out others, campaigners have claimed.

Now the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) is urging people to sign an open letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel calling for a series of changes to Home Office procedures to assuage migrants’ fears.

The letter seeks the suspension of all NHS charging and data-sharing with the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes, citing “significant” evidence that it stops migrants accessing healthcare.

In addition, it wants a public information campaign to reassure migrants it is safe for them to access such care during the global emergency.

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“There is significant evidence that both NHS charging and data-sharing between the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care stops migrants from accessing healthcare, even in the case where exemptions exist for infectious diseases,” the letter reads.

“There is clear evidence the hostile environment deters individuals with tuberculosis from accessing care, and that migrants are deterred from accessing healthcare advice for fear that they will be charged for treatment, or that interaction with the NHS could lead to them being targeted by immigration enforcement.

“Whilst the Government has introduced an exemption for Covid-19 diagnostic tests and treatment, the charging system still acts as a deterrent for migrants that will be charged for other tests and treatment for any comorbidities that are not exempt. The threat of charging is not the only deterrent, and neither the Home Office nor the DHSC will give assurances that patient data will not be shared for immigration enforcement purposes.”

The letter adds that healthcare practitioners had long raised concerns about the underdiagnosis of infectious diseases because of the charging policy and, at a time when Covid-19 presents an increased risk to public health, it is vital that all those who need treatment are able to access it without fear, or incurring charges.

Assurances had to be given that migrants who are unable to attend reporting appointments, court appearances, or interviews while self-isolating would not be penalised.

The charity said that provision should also be made to extend or modify visas to prevent people being forced to “overstay” their their time because of self-isolation or being unable to return to a country which is deemed not safe to travel to.

“In addition, anybody who needs to self-isolate must be granted an automatic visa extension in cases where their visa may expire during their isolation period, irrespective of their nationality,” the letter continues.

The JCWI said there was a “very serious” risk the virus could spread quickly through immigration removal centres and, as detainees are frequently moved between centres, the infection is likely to spread rapidly across the entire detention estate.

To prevent it spreading amongst everyone, it said the Government should immediately release all immigration detainees.

JCWI chief executive, Satbir Singh, told The National: “When this crisis ends, we will remember the tens of thousands of migrants in precarious, low-paid jobs who helped keep this country running.

“Lorry drivers, cleaners, postal workers – the very people our Government deemed ‘low skilled’ and unwelcome barely a month ago.

“Wherever we come from, whatever we do and however we came to be here, we all help keep our communities, our towns and our families going.

“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for the Government to value us all equally.”

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