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Health policy doesn’t operate in a vacuum – it is time Labour and the Conservatives realised that

By Dr Louise Irvine, Secretary to the National Health Action Party

Last week we saw the omnishambles that is Theresa May’s Government refuse entry to 100 Indian doctors planning to work in our National Health Service.  They had been offered posts that would fill much needed staffing gaps in the NHS.

Labour responded by calling for healthcare professionals to be exempt from the net migration cap. A welcome development, but one which only touches the tip of the iceberg.

Where we are today

This week the Government did a U turn and ended the Memorandum of Understanding that allowed the sharing of NHS patient data with the Home Office. There was convincing evidence that this had discouraged people with serious health problems from accessing health care and in some cases had led to deaths.

Prior to the “hostile environment” culture such an arrangement would have been inconceivable because it undermined vital principles of patient confidentiality, patient trust in their doctors and patients’ rights to healthcare. The power of the anti-migrant culture to undermine fundamental rights and values is terrifying. While the blame for this should be placed firmly at the door of the Conservatives, Labour has been slow to challenge such a culture, for fear of appearing soft on immigration. For too long, both Labour and the Conservatives have acted as if health policy is immune from the effects of the toxic portrayal of immigration that has become a pillar of the UK’s political landscape.

Only six Labour MPs voted against the 2014 Immigration Act, which caused the Windrush scandal. The Windrush Scandal is the culmination of a decades long process of portraying immigration in an overwhelmingly negative light by the mainstream media. Which both Labour and the Conservatives have pandered to in their quest for votes.

As a result, we now live in a country which threatens its own citizens with deportation. Where the government is not aware of whether it has deported any of its own citizens. And which has denied its citizens the right to work, housing and access to healthcare.

If we judge a country by how humanely it treats those most in need, the picture is grim.

Across the country- and as a result of the pathological interference of the Home Office in the NHS - we are witnessing many migrants living in the UK being denied hospital treatment for serious and life-threatening diseases such as cancer.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is damaging our NHS

Anti-immigrant culture and polices have also had a serious effect on NHS staffing, both from EU and non-EU countries.  The unrealistic goal of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands has led to the imposition of damaging caps to numbers of skilled workers such as doctors allowed to work in the UK.

The Nursing and Midwifery Council reports an 87% drop in applications for registration by EU nurses to practice in the UK. At a time when the NHS is short of 100,000 staff it is a sign of total political ineptitude to continue to preach and promote policies that are part of the problem, not the solution.  How can the government continue to deny the damaging impact of its hostile policies?

The Government can wax lyrical about how (the majority) of EU citizens have the right to remain post-Brexit. But why would they believe a word from a government which cannot uphold the rights of its own citizens?

EU nurses do not feel valued, they no longer feel welcome, and they have the freedom to work in other countries where they will be.

It is time to challenge the toxic narrative on immigration

This is not to deny that years of top down reform, enforced marketisation, PFI, austerity, the public sector pay cap and increased demand have not contributed to the recruitment and retention crisis that we are witnessing today.

But it is a sign of political and governmental negligence that the Conservatives continue to pursue an unworkable, unneeded, and fundamentally dangerous policy programme which will have disastrous consequences for the country’s finances, the NHS, and basic human rights.

Continuing down the road of a hard-Brexit, which implicitly endorses and continues to fuel a climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, is nothing more than indulging the falsehoods that got us into this mess in the first place.  Labour must oppose “hard Brexit” policies more clearly and forcefully.

By advocating membership of the single market, the Labour leadership can demonstrate beyond doubt that EU citizens have the right to remain. It  would pave the way for continued UK-EU cooperation on scientific research and medicines regulation and public health protections, and it would prevent the country’s finances from falling off a cliff edge.

Labour must shed its fear of losing the votes of those who have been led to believe that the greatest threat to their wellbeing and livelihoods are immigrants, not Tory austerity and hard Brexit policies. Labour must make the case for the value of immigration to our society and economy and make the case for just and fair immigration policies, both for EU workers and for workers from outside the EU. All of whom make a vital contribution to UK society, including the NHS.  It must definitively break from supporting any policies underpinning the “hostile environment” for migrants that has caused so much harm not only to individual people but to the values that form the fabric of our society.

Ends

The National Health Action (NHA) Party was founded in 2012 to oppose the growing marketisation of the NHS. The NHA Party's Dr Louise Irvine stood against Jeremy Hunt in his SW Surrey constituency in the 2015 and 2017 General Elections, taking 12,093 votes in the latter: a 7.8% swing to NHA.

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