The British Medical Association has warned the Home Office that doctors shouldn't act as "border guards", as it emerged that the department is backing a pilot scheme in which pregnant women will be asked to show their passports before being able to give birth.
The plans – which will be trialled at St George’s Hospital in London and are designed to check that the pregnant women are eligible to receive free NHS care – were called "absolutely absurd" by shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth.
Documents from the hospital's trust, seen by the Health Service Journal, state: “At booking every patient will need to show a form of photo ID or proof of their right to remain (asylum status, visa, etc).
“Any patient who is unable to do this will be referred to the trust’s overseas patient team for specialist document screening, in liaison with the UK Border Agency and the Home Office."
The documents also say the Home Office is “very keen to formally support this pilot” and that "the intention is for this to become standard procedure".
A spokesperson for the BMA, however, told BuzzFeed News: "Hospitals are not allowed to withhold maternity care from any patient, including those who are eligible to be charged. This is because maternity care is deemed to be ‘immediately necessary’ care."
They added: “While those accessing NHS services should be eligible to do so, a doctor's duty is to treat the patient who's in front of them, not to act as a border guard. Above all, it's vitally important that proposals like these don't have an impact on the care patients receive and that patients aren't deterred from seeking necessary treatment.”
Midwives also voiced disquiet over the new pilot scheme. Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “This move by the trust is a concern. I am sure no trust would deny care to women in labour or who are pregnant and arrive at a hospital needing urgent care related to their pregnancy. To be clear, the law says, and government policy states, that trusts must offer care to women in labour, irrespective of their immigration status in the country."
She added: “Most importantly this move could also be dangerous because it could deter women from seeking care in a timely fashion. This could potentially have a serious impact on the health of the mother and their baby and the outcome of the pregnancy.
“I would ask the trust to clarify their policy and to give assurances that all pregnant women who need care will receive it, no matter what their immigration status.”
The plans were first mentioned in 2015 as part of a clampdown on so-called health tourists when the Department of Health told hospitals they had a "legal obligation" to make sure the people they treated were eligible for free care on the NHS.
Labour health spokesman Jon Ashworth said: “The idea that pregnant women could be forced to show their passports before giving birth is absolutely absurd. Hospitals should be places of care not de facto immigration enforcement centres - this proposal is totally inappropriate and must never get off the ground".
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, said: “This looks like an attempt for our desperately underfunded NHS to claw back small amounts of money by any means necessary.
He continued: "This isn’t the answer to the funding crisis– what we need is decisive action from the Secretary of State and the Chancellor to give health and care the long term investment it desperately needs".
A spokesman for St George’s told The Telegraph: “This is a proposal and not a plan. Further work would need to be undertaken, including speaking to key stakeholders before we would be in a position to proceed with the pilot."
A Department of Health spokesperson said: “If a health professional believes that NHS treatment is needed urgently, it should never be denied or delayed while the patient's eligibility is established. However, it is right that patients should expect to be asked to provide evidence of their eligibility for free healthcare.”
Marie Le Conte is a politics and media reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Marie Le Conte at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.