A group of doctors has challenged the UK government over plans to deny GP care to failed asylum seekers, saying they breach medical ethics and are illegal.
Doctors say they should be concentrating on giving appropriate health care and not worrying about policing the UK borders, says an article in the British Medical Journal.
The article adds that doctors concerned about government attempts to restrict free NHS care for vulnerable migrant groups are gearing up for a fresh battle over treatment charges.
The question of fees for foreign nationals is currently being reviewed jointly by the Department of Health and the Home Office.
Their findings are expected shortly and may lead to changes in regulations governing entitlement to free NHS primary care.
The government first consulted on proposals to deny free access to primary care for failed asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in 2004, but it never published the results of its public consultation exercise.
But medical students and doctors from the group Medsin have summarised in a report the contents of submissions to the 2004 consultation from doctors, primary care trusts, and non-governmental organisations working with migrant communities, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
They contacted those who responded to the consultation individually to ask for copies of their submissions.
The Medsin report found that 75% of respondents believed the government’s proposals would break General Medical Council ethical guidelines.
Over two thirds (68%) of respondents felt not treating people could put the general public’s health in danger through a potential risk from infectious diseases.
Middlesbrough GP Dr Helen Sykes warned that if GPs were unable to vaccinate migrants, there would be a ‘risk of recurrence of epidemics of measles, diptheria and pertussis (whooping cough)’.
Just over a quarter were concerned that denying care to those who needed it would violate patients’ human rights.
The Medsin report found there is widespread resistance among GPs and others who would be needed to enforce any new rules.
Currently, people seeking asylum are fully entitled to free care, but once their bid has been rejected NHS trusts are asked to decide on eligibility on a case by case basis.
In April, the High Court ruled in favour of a Palestinian who claimed denying care for his chronic liver disease breached his human rights, saying banning failed asylum seekers from receiving free NHS treatment was unlawful.
However, the Department of Health was given permission to appeal, and the case is due to be heard in November.
The Palestinian’s lawyer, Adam Hundt, told the BMJ that he had been contacted by many doctors: ‘They are telling me they’d been led to believe they didn’t have any choice about who they can treat.
‘Some managers are interpreting the rules too restrictively and are saying unless someone is at death’s door you shouldn’t treat them unless they pay. This is wrong.’
Hundt said he has learnt of some ‘appalling decisions’, such as expectant mothers being wrongly told they would not be cared for if they turned up to hospital in labour.
He alleged: ‘Three of my clients, including a child, have died after treatment was refused.’
A British Medical Association spokeswoman told News Line yesterday: ‘We think that for failed asylum seekers, particularly, there should be an element of flexibility as they are a vulnerable group of people who are often unable to pay for treatment.’
West Midlands GP Dr Grant Ingrams added: ‘Doctors should provide treatment as they are ethically required to, to people wherever they come from, including failed asylum seekers.
‘The good thing about the NHS is you don’t have to ask “where’s your money”.’
• Second news story
US PRISON ON DIEGO GARCIA
Separate reports by former senior US intelligence officials that ‘terrorist suspects’ were held by the United States in a secret prison on the British territory of Diego Garcia as recently as 2006 have given the lie to denials by both the US and UK governments.
The Blair and Brown governments have repeatedly accepted US ‘assurances’ that Diego Garcia, which was ethnically cleansed of Chagos Islanders to make way for a US base, has not been used to hold detainees or for CIA rendition flights.
But senior US intelligence officials, speaking anonymously, have now said that the US has been holding terrorist suspects on the British territory.
Former intelligence officers unofficially told senior Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón that Mustafa Setmarian, a Spanish-based Syrian accused of running terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, was taken to Diego Garcia in late 2005 and held there for months.
It is thought that more than ten detainees have been held on Diego Garcia or on a US navy vessel within its harbour since 2002.
Separately, a former senior US official, told TIME magazine that, in 2002 and possibly 2003, the US imprisoned and interrogated one or more terrorist suspects on Diego Garcia.
Legal charity Reprieve says: ‘We are confident high-value prisoners have been held on Diego Garcia for interrogation and possible torture.
‘We now have sources from the CIA, the UN, the Council of Europe and a Spanish judge who will confirm this.’
It is now being accepted that the US has both a prison on Diego Garcia and prison ships off the coast.