Digital and creative industries minister Margot James told MPs on Wednesday that the government would 'narrow the scope' of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that has allowed the Home Office to obtain information from patient records for immigration tracking purposes.
GPs, along with the House of Commons health and social care select committee and campaign groups have called for the deal to be scrapped for some time, warning that it threatens to undermine trust between patients and doctors.
In a debate on the Data Protection Act, Ms James told MPs: 'No longer will the names of overstayers and illegal entrants be sought against health service records to find current address details.
'Henceforth the Home Office will only be able to use the MOU to trace an individual being considered for deportation having been convicted of a serious criminal offence or where their presence is considered non conducive to the public good, for example where they present a significant risk to public security but have yet to be convicted of a criminal offence.'
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said: 'We are extremely pleased and relieved that the government has suspended the data-sharing agreement that has been in place with NHS Digital - it is a huge victory for common sense, for civil rights and for high-quality patient care.
'This is what is best for our patients, and it is what is best for doctors, who are trusted to keep our patients’ data safe but have recently felt as if the relationship we have with our patients has been compromised.'
BMA medical ethics committee chair Dr John Chisholm said: 'This is a positive step which recognises our widespread concerns regarding the MOU between NHS Digital, the Home Office and the DHSC regarding the sharing of confidential NHS data for immigration purposes.
'The relationship between doctor and patient is based on a foundation of confidentiality and trust, and if this breaks down, it not only damages this individual relationship, but also is likely to have knock-on effects on the healthcare seeking behaviour of the public at large.'
NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson recently defended the MOU, arguing last month that a 'rigorous process' had determined that there was a legal basis for the release of information in the way it set out.
But responding to the government annoucement on Wednesday, she said NHS Digital welcomed the government's 'willingness to adapt its tracing requests to better align with established codes of practice within the clinical community.
She added: 'We understand the Home Office will limit its requests immediately. Likewise, we will immediately only process requests which meet these revised criteria.
'As soon as is practically possible, we will amend the MOU between ourselves, the Home Office and the DHSC which describes this tracing service, and publish the updated version openly.'