Entitled to Vaccines, Undocumented Immigrants in U.K. Struggle for Access

The government has said inoculation centers won’t check immigration status, but many people remain fearful and confused about health care services.

By Allison McCann

LONDON — In early February, the government of Britain announced that every person living in the country would be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine, free of charge, regardless of their immigration status. Public health experts praised the decision, necessary to ensure the safety of everyone, while others raised alarms at the prospect of noncitizens jumping ahead of eligible Britons.

“No one will get their vaccination out of turn,” Edward Argar, a British health minister, said in an interview. The disease, he added, is “looking for victims, it’s not worried about immigration status.”

As in much of the world, the virus has ravaged immigrant communities in Britain, many of which supply the bulk of frontline workers in grocery stores and domestic care. Many immigrants also live in crowded, multigenerational housing that exposed older family members throughout the pandemic. The government’s so-called vaccine amnesty was designed to encourage even those without legal status to come forward and get vaccinated.

But more than a month after the announcement, many undocumented immigrants said they remained fearful that asking for a vaccine would risk arrest or deportation. Others said they had been denied registration at local doctors’ offices, which often ask for identification or proof of address — although neither is required to access primary care.

The most common response, however, was confusion or a lack of clarity about which services were available — the lasting effects of a yearslong “hostile environment” policy that aimed to force those without legal status to leave the country by blocking their access to jobs, bank accounts and free medical care.

“It’s all very well to say, ‘Anyone can get a vaccine,’” said Phil Murwill, the head of services at Doctors of the World U.K. “But for years there was a deliberate policy of creating a hostile environment for undocumented immigrants that has put people off from accessing any kind of care. And we’re seeing that play out now.”

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