Migrant Voice: While we welcome the rapid rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination programme in the UK, we are concerned that there are many UK residents who have no idea if, when or how they will have access to the vaccine: they are undocumented migrants, who live and work among the rest of us, but who don’t have the same access to healthcare and may be too afraid to seek out the chance to be vaccinated.
In the UK, the vaccine is being distributed based on information held by GP surgeries. Theoretically, every person in the UK is allowed to register with their local GP and receive primary care, regardless of residency or immigration status – so theoretically, every person should be able to receive the vaccine.
Yet the reality is very different. We know countless people who were turned away from their GP surgery when they tried to register, many of them undocumented migrants – they were told they need proof of ID, of status, of address, or that people from their country of origin aren’t allowed to register with a GP, or “we don’t deal with illegal immigrants”.
In these crucial months, as the vaccine is rolled out, hundreds of thousands of people may miss out because GP surgeries don’t know or are choosing not to follow the rules – and the impacts could be devastating. The Government must act swiftly to remind all GP surgeries that proof of identity, status or address is not required for someone to register, and that refusing to register someone due to prejudice or racism will not be tolerated.
The Government and NHS must also deliver loud, clear messages on who is entitled to receive a vaccine. Just as they made testing and treatment for Covid-19 freely accessible to everyone, regardless of status, the same must be done for vaccinations and a public information campaign launched to spread the word and to reassure migrants that none of their information will be shared with the Home Office when they receive a vaccine.
Since Covid-19 first arrived in the UK, the Government has taken some welcome steps towards protecting undocumented migrants – including making Covid-19 testing and treatment free and accessible to all – but these changes were not accompanied by an effective communication campaign, so many people remained unaware. Furthermore, years of hostile environment policies and a lack of clear communication regarding their rights has left many migrants deeply distrustful of the UK authorities. We know of several cases where undocumented migrants, fearful of costs and repercussions from the Home Office, haven’t sought treatment for Covid-19 and have died as a result.
To prevent further avoidable deaths, the Government must do better at informing people of their rights. This job has too often been left to migrant organisations, charities and NGOs, which often lack the resources to spread the message effectively. And when it comes to public health, the Government and NHS should be leading the messaging campaign.
With regards to the vaccination programme, the UK is in a better starting position than many other countries, where often only those with a residency status can register with a doctor and access any form of healthcare. Yet there has been no official statements regarding the rights of undocumented migrants to access the vaccine, unlikely in Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, where authorities have stated that they intend to offer the vaccination to all residents, including those without papers.
We need to see a well-planned and well-funded campaign that seeks to reach all UK residents through a variety of platforms, tools and languages. Migrants with and without documents need to hear and believe that testing, treatment and vaccinations for Covid-19 are free, that they are eligible for them, and that there will be no repercussions or checks for anyone seeking them. Steps must also be taken to ensure that all GP surgeries follow the rules regarding registration and that there are negative consequences for those that don’t.
We’re all desperate to return to some kind of post-pandemic normality – and for many of us, the first step will be receiving the vaccine. From a public health perspective, it is common sense to make sure that everyone living in the UK can access this – after all, a vaccination programme only works when it reaches as many people as possible. But it’s also about common decency – undocumented migrants are our neighbours, our friends and part of our communities. We urge the Government to make it clear that they too can receive the vaccine, no questions asked, and to dismantle the barriers that might stand in their way.
Note regarding the quote, “we don’t deal with illegal immigrants”: and just to underline the point, this is not a phrase we use . As the Migrant Voice headline says: we speak of “undocumented migrants, who live and work among the rest of us”.