Updated: Jul 19, 2021
A hostile environment risks undermining the jab
Written by Nilmini Roelens, Roelens Solicitors Date of Publication: 05 July 2021
The UK government's hostile environment policy introduced by Theresa May in May 2012 may undermine what is otherwise a successful Covid vaccination programme. This policy designed to make life so unbearable that "unwelcome migrants" would simply be forced to pack their bags and leave because they cannot access employment, healthcare, accommodation etc. could potentially leave unidentifiable swathes of people unable to access the Covid jab. Does the government know exactly how many undocumented migrants (non-EU and EU) there are in the UK currently? The last day of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) on 30 June 2021 saw a sudden surge of 50,000 applicants jamming the EU Exit ID application system, making a total of 6.2 million applicants, whereas the estimates five years ago were that there were about 3 million EU citizens who would be eligible. How many more EU citizens belonging to vulnerable groups including the sick, minors whose parents "did not realise" and those in care, the homeless, the disabled and the IT challenged suddenly found themselves being "unlawfully" in the UK on 1 July 2021? Those EU nationals unable to provide "reasonable grounds" for a delayed application following any 28-day notice will no doubt find themselves in a very precarious situation. A volatile combination of changes to the Immigration Rules under Paragraph 21 of Part 9 enabling the refusal and cancellation of permission to stay for rough sleeping (and associated guidance published in April 2021), data sharing policies between NHS and UKVI, "the delegation" of immigration functions to employers and landlords, the extremely slow and piecemeal roll out of Coronavirus "exceptional assurances" and a raft of other policy measures will undoubtedly discourage those who have no status from coming forward to be vaccinated. The government's Covid-19: migrant health guide ostensibly reassures migrants that "Individuals do not require an NHS number or GP registration to receive the COVID-19 vaccination and should not be denied vaccination on this basis. Individuals who do not have an NHS number or are not registered with a GP are still entitled to free COVID-19 vaccinations". However, Picum, the Brussels based Platform for International Co-operation for Undocumented Migrants, argues that although the UK government page makes this promise, earlier data sharing between NHS primary care services and the Home Office (now suspended) and ongoing data sharing between NHS Secondary care and the Home Office creates much mistrust among such migrant communities. The lack of knowledge by GPs and others will deter and exacerbate vaccine take-up issues by the undocumented. Picum notes that all the efforts are "driven locally, rather than coming from the government, so there is variation from region to region". It would have been hard enough persuading the vaccine reluctant population to come forward. Lack of clarity over whether by seeking vaccination one would expose oneself to enforcement action by immigration officials would deter many who find themselves in "irregular" situations from seeking vaccination. And this is an unknown number. If our estimates of EU nationals eligible under EUSS was out by over 2.6 million (as at today's date) how many non-EU "illegal migrants" are there in the UK? This is a national emergency after all. Is it time to raise awareness by concerted national publicity campaigns through the media, via community groups and lobbying MPs for an offer of "an exceptional assurance" of some kind from the government that no enforcement action will be taken against those who seek NHS registration or who approach primary care services via GPs to secure anti-Covid vaccine. A government hell-bent on looking tough on migration of any kind will no doubt be reluctant to be seen to be supporting illegal migrants. But could a myopic failure to do so undermine its overall economic and healthcare strategy? In the lead-up to the end of "the grace period" for EU nationals there was very little information in mainstream media as the dreaded 'B word' had become unutterable, even by the BBC. Only a few scant announcements on the radio could be heard encouraging EU nationals to apply in time to that constituent scheme. Another Windrush waiting to happen remains predictable. Should we not bring to bear some political will behind an issue that could seriously further threaten the overall economic wellbeing of the nation? Do we not need to ensure that a potentially large proportion of the population does not go unprotected and thus perpetuating endless variants and undermining any ground gained by the vaccination roll out? Perhaps economic arguments may persuade the government to look at this issue seriously even if human rights considerations do not.