The Home Office is in discussion with NHS Digital over a new agreement to allow it to access GP patient data, after NHS Digital pulled out of the previous deal.
The data-sharing agreement, known as the memorandum of understanding (MoU), was first introduced in January 2017, but put on pause for review back in May, before NHS Digital withdrew completely at the beginning on this month.
A new deal could be on the horizon however, with the two parties currently in talks over a ‘new MoU’ to enable requests for ‘non-medical information about those facing deportation action’.
This comes after a GP practice was asked to share patient data with immigration officers by the Home Office back in April, a request which the practice refused and GP leaders branded ‘appalling’.
The MoU was renewed in March of this year, with the Department of Health and Social Care arguing at the time that patients should have a ‘reasonable expectation’ that their non-medical data is shared between government officers. However, in May the agreement was halted, as the parties involved discussed restrictions on how it should be used.
Meanwhile, the MoU was legally challenged by the Migrants’ Rights Network – represented by human rights organisation Liberty and Matrix Chambers – which said it violated patient confidentiality and discriminated against non-British patients.
On 2 November, the Migrants’ Rights Network said it received a letter from the court, stating that NHS Digital had withdrawn from the data-sharing agreement, a victory it claims was the result of the legal battle.
Lara Ten Caten, a lawyer working for Liberty’s campaign, said: ‘This stand-down by the Government is a huge victory for everyone who believes we should be able to access healthcare safely – and particularly for doctors and nurses who had become complicit in the Government’s hostile environment against their will.’
However, NHS Digital told our sister publication Pulse that it is working with the Home Office to create a new MoU, and will run a consultation – to understand if it would be in the ‘public interest’ – before signing the new agreement.
NHS Digital explained it ‘received a revised narrowed request from the Home Office’ which ‘calls upon a different legal basis for data sharing which will require a materially different MoU’.
A spokesperson said: ‘Given this, and the expectation that it will take several more months to conclude consultation and drafting, and our recognition that multiple stakeholder communities are anxious to ensure that the agreement of 9 May is respected, we have formally closed-out our participation in the exiting MoU, which has been paused since May.
‘If our assessment of the new request, post consultation, is that it is in the public interest to share the requested data, then we will sign a new MoU with the Home Office.’
A Home Office spokesperson added: ‘We continue to work with NHS Digital on a new MoU to enable us to make requests for non-medical information about those facing deportation action because they have committed serious crimes, or where information is necessary to protect someone’s welfare.’
Chair of Doctors in Unite and Tower Hamlets GP Dr Jackie Applebee said: ‘The MoU undermined one of the most fundamental pillars in the doctor/patient relationship and that is trust. It is great news for GPs and patients that they can resume confidential partnerships which is the bedrock of good clinical care.’
But she added: ‘It is very disappointing to hear that hot on the heels of the Liberty victory that the Home Office and NHS Digital are continuing to develop a new MoU. It is very worrying that they clearly learned nothing from the windrush affair and persist in fostering the hostile environment.’
MPs previously slammed the MoU, calling it ‘entirely inappropriate’, and arguing that NHS Digital paid ‘little regard’ to the ‘ethical implications’ of such a data-sharing agreement.
This story was first published on our sister publication Pulse.