NHS not Border Police

Being foreign isn’t a disease or an injury and to those of us brought up under a universal health system like the NHS, free at the point of use, it just seems wrong that doctors and hospitals should have an obligation to check someone’s immigration status when they come needing assistance. Yet since last October, a few weeks after this protest by medical staff and supporters they have been required to do so for anyone seeking non-emergency care will be required to prove they are entitled to free health service under the NHS and will be asked to pay for their treatment up front if they are not.

The change is all part of the government’s intention to ensure a ‘hostile environment‘ for anyone not entitled to be in the country, though it won’t of course affect the rich who pay for their private treatment – and they will in any case be welcomed here if they have sufficient funds to invest in the UK. There does seem to me something truly obscene about a system which welcomes the rich but hounds the poor.

The UK too is a country that believes in free trade and promotes it through various organisations. Again there seems to me a contradiction in promoting the free movement of goods but sets up great hurdles to prevent the free movement of people – except for tourism.

Roughly 10% of registered doctors and 4% of registered nurses in the UK are EU immigrants with slightly large proportions from outside the EU. Many who have migrated to work here are now British citizens, and a fairly large proportion of those born in the UK have parents who were migrants. As a frequent patient of the NHS I’m very aware of how dependent it is on migration to the UK, with┬áso many of the staff I meet being from abroad. It seems rather inappropriate to ask these people effectively to police our borders.

The Patients Not Passports – No Borders in the NHS! protest was a slightly complicated one to photograph, as it had three separate blocs with different starting points, so I had to chose one of them. I met with the Migrants Welcome bloc, partly because I thought it might be more interesting and I knew some of those who would be there, and so was unable to photograph either the Maternity Care bloc or the Sisters bloc (I think Sisters as in Sisters Uncut rather than in the nursing sense) until the three groups came together in an undisclosed location.

Looking at where the three blocs were starting it was relatively straightforward to guess that our common destination might well be somewhere in the area of St Thomas’ Hospital, and we met with them just on the other side of the road, then walking into the garden area above the hospital car park for the joint rally. There were just one or two security staff who attempted to stop the protesters, but clearly stood no chance of doing so; either the hospital authorities (and police) had failed to notice the very public advertisements on social media for the protest or had decided only to offer a very token resistance. I suspect the latter as they will have appreciated the mood of their staff.

The protesters had decided that a very large banner would make a great photo opportunity to get press coverage, but unfortunately it was almost impossible to get the kind of result they had in mind – and at that point there were a number of security officers anxious to prevent us taking it. But the giant ‘Migrants Welcome Here‘ banner is really a difficult format to handle, being over ten times as long as it is high. I did manage to make a usable image, though the banner rather hides the rally behind it, and was rather pleased to catch a pigeon at almost exactly the right place before I was chased off the grass I needed to be on to take it with the 18-35 mm at its widest.

I had one other problem. Apparently there were some people on the protest who because of immigration issues requested that they were not photographed, and some wore small symbols to identify them. It isn’t practicable or even a sensible approach, and there is a very simple alternative if such people wish to take part in public protests (as they have every right to.) Which is to wear a mask or face-paint as a disguise. Police may sometimes ask protesters to remove masks, though not usually if they are clearly decorative, but photographers certainly won’t.

Apparently one such person appeared as a bystander in a couple of my pictures that are on the web site. I don’t know if he was wearing the ‘no photography’ symbol but from where I took the picture there was nothing to indicate he didn’t want to be photographed. It just isn’t possible for photographers to keep track of everyone taking part in a protest in this way.

By the time I had been told of the problem, one of those images had already been distributed around the world and it was too late to take any effective action. Other photographers who were at the event, including some from the major agencies, will also have taken pictures with him in the frame, and their pictures too will have gone out uncensored. But on my web site I have altered his image into a rather blurred generic figure. Like most journalists and photographers I’m opposed to such censorship, but this was a request from a friend and the presence of that person was not important to the picture. I felt unhappy to do so, but angry that I had been put into a position where it was necessary.

No NHS immigration checks


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