31st December 2003
On 30th December, Health Minister John Hutton announced the Government is to press ahead with measures to restrict foreign nationals’ access to free NHS health care. The changes are expected to come into force in April 2004 and will include and end to free NHS care for asylum seekers who have had their applications refused and who have exhausted the appeals process.
The announcement followed a 14-week consultation on a Department of Health paper, Proposed Amendment to the NHS Regulations (Charges to Overseas Visitor) 1989. The package of measures also introduces payment for NHS treatment for non-resident relatives and dependants of overseas visitors resident in Britain and an end to free treatment for business travellers to the UK and their dependants who fall ill or have an accident during their trip.
In response to the announcement, Deputy Chief Executive of the Refugee Council Margaret Lally said,:
‘The Government’s approach should be grounded in reality. It would be unreasonable, if not irresponsible, to act in a way that suggests that the length of NHS waiting lists is directly linked to the number of failed asylum seekers in need of healthcare.
“I think most people expect a credible asylum system – unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary – to return failed asylum seekers to their countries of origin. However, as the Government accepts, some unsuccessful asylum applicants come from countries such as Zimbabwe, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo and simply cannot be removed. Given this fact, I think the public will ask the reasonable question, ‘how will these proposals affect people who cannot be returned through no fault of their own?’
“The Government should also listen to the views of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Denying basic and preventative healthcare – even to such a small group in our society – jeopardises individual and public health. Such action may also prove to be shortsighted given the extra costs associated with emergency treatment.”
Healthcare professionals have expressed concern about the new measures. The British Medical Association was aware of potential costs to the health of failed asylum seekers, stating, “These people have no access to money and it would be totally unjustifiable to leave them suffering from chronic illnesses, including mental health problems, for unspecified periods of time.”
Read the Refugee Council’s response to the Government’s consultation exercise, published October 2003 (pdf).
Read a BBC News report
Read a Guardian Unlimited report on the announcement