The Government has conceded in rolling back an agreement allowing patient data to be shared with immigration enforcement services, following concerted opposition from the BMA and others.
A ‘significant narrowing’ of the MoU (memorandum of understanding) between NHS Digital, the Department for Health and Social Care and the Home Office, will ensure that patient data can only be shared in situations that meet the existing, well-established legal and ethical parameters.
Under the original terms of the agreement, the Home Office had been able to request address details of patients suspected of immigration offences from NHS Digital.
Culture minister Margot James confirmed data requests would from now on be limited to those individuals facing deportation following conviction for a serious criminal offence, during a Commons debate on the Data Protection Bill yesterday.
She said: ‘The Government has reflected further on the concerns put forward by my honorable friend [Sarah Wollaston] and her committee. As a result, and with immediate effect, the data-sharing arrangements between the Home Office and the NHS have been amended.
‘No longer will the names of over-stayers and illegal entrants be sought against health service records to find address details.
‘Henceforth, the Home Office will only be able to use the MoU to trace an individual who is being considered for deportation action having been convicted of a serious criminal offence, or when their presence is considered non-conducive to the public good.’
The MoU has faced criticism from the BMA and a number of cross-party MPs, including Parliamentary health and social care committee chair Sarah Wollaston, for undermining public trust in the health service, and, in some cases, deterring patients from seeking treatment.
Dr Wollaston (pictured below) had written to immigration minister Caroline Noakes in February this year warning that NHS Digital ‘had not taken account of the public interest in maintaining a confidential medical service’.
At the time, however, the Government had rejected the concerns set out in Dr Wollaston’s letter, advising that they saw no evidence that would warrant a ‘significant change of approach’ in the MoU.
Following yesterday’s u-turn on the MoU, BMA medical ethics committee chair John Chisholm welcomed the announcement that the high bar for disclosing personal NHS data will apply to the MoU with immediate effect.
He said: ‘The relationship between doctor and patient is based on a foundation of confidentiality and trust, and if this breaks down, it not only damages this individual relationship, but also is likely to have knock-on effects on the healthcare-seeking behaviour of the public at large.
‘We have been clear for a long time that confidential patient data, including names and addresses, should only be shared in matters relating to a "serious crime", a threshold which most immigration offences are unlikely to meet. We are pleased to hear the Government confirm that this high bar for disclosing personal NHS data will apply to the MoU with immediate effect.
‘Given this commitment from the Government, we expect this to set a clear threshold on how confidential NHS data is treated across the board. We look forward to see the details of the revised MoU, as outlined today in Parliament.’
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