NHS opinion poll questions validity of Home Office data sharing deal, GPs warn

An opinion poll commissioned by NHS Digital on public attitudes to sharing data from patient records 'calls into question' its agreement to share information with the Home Office for immigration tracking, GPs say.

Figures from a Mori poll carried out for NHS Digital to gauge public views on sharing data from medical records show that 98% of people in England believe it is important that this information should be treated as confidential.

A total of 97% said it was important that patients' address details - which are currently being shared with the Home Office for immigration tracking purposes under a 'memorandum of understanding' (MOU) with NHS Digital - should also be treated as confidential.

However, the poll also found that 86% of respondents said it was important for the government to trace people 'suspected of immigration crime'. Seven out of 10 (72%) said they would support the NHS sharing patients' address details with the Home Office if the person was suspected of illegally entering the UK, escaping immigration bail or overstaying a visa.

NHS data sharing

A total of 71% said they would support this information being shared with other government departments, for example to trace people suspected of crimes such as tax evasion - and 85% backed sharing data to help the police trace someone suspected of committing a serious crime.

The findings come as the Home Office and NHS Digital face growing pressure to scrap the deal that allows patient data from GP records to be used to trace people for 'immigration offences'.

Both the GPC and the RCGP warned the findings should not be used to justify continuing to share medical records with immigration officials.

RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'Immigration issues evoke strong opinions, but using this as a rationale to start picking and choosing who is and who isn’t entitled to have their NHS data kept safe is potentially dangerous.

Duty of care

'As doctors we have a duty of care to our patients, regardless of their immigration status or any other personal circumstances, and this includes keeping their personal data safe - something our patients trust us to do. The MOU between NHS Digital and the Home Office threatens our ability to do this, and risks breaking down the trust our patients have in us - trust that is essential in order to deliver the best possible patient care across the NHS.'

GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'NHS Digital should be concerned about these findings as they further call in to question the validity of the MOU they have with the Home Office. Patients clearly recognise and place great importance on maintaining NHS information confidential and this in itself should be a sufficiently strong message for them to question the wisdom of continuing with this MOU, particularly following the report of the health select committee.

'The use of a survey with such leading questions to try to justify their actions and with low levels of support, does not help their case.'

Speaking earlier this week after a report from the House of Commons health and social care committee called for the data sharing deal to be scrapped, NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson said: 'We have been through a rigorous process to assess the release of demographic data to the Home Office. This has established that there is a legal basis for the release and has assured us that it is in the public interest to share limited demographic data in very specific circumstances.'

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