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Immigration Bill could pose ‘threat’ to public health

The government’s Immigration Bill is likely to pose “threats” to public health and result in increased costs and more stress for NHS staff, a group of health experts have warned.

Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, they say that the Bill is far reaching and, if passed un-amended, will alter access costs to the NHS for visitors and temporary migrants from outside the European Economic Area (non-EEA).

The authors claim that the Bill targets a vulnerable and easily scapegoated group and can only be understood in its political context. “The Conservative Party is concerned about loss of support to the United Kingdom Independence Party and wants to appear tough on migration in the lead up to next year’s General Election,” they say.

Politicians also claim the measures are necessary to cut costs of ‘health tourism’ and ‘abuse’ by illegal immigrants. Yet the UK is a net beneficiary of health tourism and while immigrants account for 4.5% of the population in England, they are responsible for less than 2% of NHS expenditure.

Additionally, the Bill confers on the secretary of state a wide-ranging discretion to implement a charge – a ‘migrant health levy’ – on immigrants seeking entry or leave to remain for a limited period to access healthcare. This applies irrespective of whether the migrant holds insuranceor accesses NHS service during his or her stay.

Dr Sarah Steele, co-author from Queen Mary, University of London, said: “While migrants coming to the UK are generally in good health, over time they face increased risk, particularly of non-communicable diseases. We know that failure to intervene early gives rise to worse outcomes for many conditions and increased cost of treatment in the long term. Healthy migrants contribute significantly to the economy, working hard and contributing to a more vibrant UK. We should not be pushing migrants away from NHS services that better their health both immediately and in the longer term.”

The authors also suggest NHS staff will be even further stretched as they are asked to meet additional eligibility checks and reporting requirements. This will detract from patient care at a time when there are already concerns about staff shortages and quality of care.

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