Many doctors’ surgeries refuse to register someone without papers, such as proof of address or ID, an investigation has found, despite Welsh Government rules stating such documents are not necessary.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) surveyed medical centres in Cardiff and nine other UK areas, to test the difficulties faced by undocumented migrants when registering with GP surgeries.

Of 17 surgeries called in the Cardiff area, staff at 13 said they would not register the BIJ’s dummy patient, ‘Rosa’, who was a female in her 40s and undocumented.

The BIJ said they were friends of ‘Rosa’, calling on her behalf to find out if she could register with the surgeries in order to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

The evidence from Cardiff formed part of a wider investigation which contacted 210 surgeries in Wales, Scotland and England, and found less than a quarter would definitely register the dummy patient.

Of the rest, almost two-thirds said they definitely wouldn’t register ‘Rosa’ while the remainder said they were unsure if they could.

The Welsh Government, which runs the NHS in Wales, confirmed to the BIJ that “proof of address is not a requirement for registration”.

A spokeswoman added: “A GP practice may ask for some form of ID, an Asylum Registration Card or a Home Office letter would be acceptable. Support for Asylum Seekers and Refugees in accessing health services is available from local health boards.”

But the findings of the investigation suggest staff at many surgeries are not aware of the government’s guidelines, and would mistakenly deny real-life undocumented migrants who want to register with a GP and get a coronavirus vaccine.

Each surgery does have discretion whether or not to register someone, but according to a legal briefing on access to healthcare for migrants – shared by the Welsh Refugee Council – a prospective patient can only be refused registration “if they are resident outside the GP’s catchment area, if their list is closed, or if there are other reasonable grounds”.

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Responding to the BIJ’s findings, a spokesperson for Cardiff and Vale University Health Board said it was working with councils, GPs, pharmacies and charities “to ensure our population in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan has equal access to the Covid vaccine”. This has included pop-up vaccination clinics at mosques and other community settings.

“As a UHB we have the Cardiff Health Access Practice (CHAP) which is specifically set up to support asylum seekers with health and wellbeing needs and the vaccine is available through these channels,” the health board spokesperson added.

“We are continuing to reach out to people who have not yet received their vaccination to come forward so we leave nobody behind. As part of this campaign we are liaising with those that have not attended for a vaccine by translating our letters and text messages into four of the most commonly spoken languages.

“We are also in the process of distributing a vaccine leaflet which we have co-produced with the community and translated into the top 10 languages spoken in the area.”

Dr Sally Hargreaves, a migrant healthcare and vaccination expert at St George’s University of London, says the Bureau’s findings echo their own research. 

This shows that precarious migrants feel excluded from the national response to Covid-19, lack trust in the NHS, are concerned about not being able to access the vaccine through a GP, and fear being charged orfacing mmigration checks if they come forward.

“Most vaccines in the UK are delivered through primary care, and as these findings show undocumented migrants who are unable to register with a GP practice may therefore face barriers to accessing the COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines going forward,” she said.

Epidemiologist Dr Deepti Gurdasani, of Queen Mary University of London, said in reaction to our findings: “While the government says vaccines are available to all, this is just an empty statement, given it’s clearly done very little to ensure that this is actually the case, and the reality for those on the ground is clearly very different.

From a public health, and humanitarian perspective, this is extremely concerning.”

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