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.
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.”
Outside estimates put the number of undocumented immigrants in Britain somewhere between 800,000 and 1.2 million, or just under 2 percent of the population. (The British government has not estimated the size of this population since 2005, when it was said to be 430,000.) It is a significant group that includes many at-risk workers, and one that epidemiologists say the vaccination campaign — which has so far given nearly half the population at least one dose — must reach if Britain hopes to safely exit the pandemic.
This month, Ghie Ghie and Weng, two undocumented domestic workers from the Philippines, walked arm in arm to the Science Museum in London, one of more than the 1,500 vaccination sites across the country. (Like other undocumented people interviewed for this article, the women asked to be identified only by their first names for fear of arrest.) Ghie Ghie had gotten her first shot of the vaccine the previous weekend and was hoping Weng could get hers.
booked an appointment online under the category of health and social care workers, which the government defined as “doctors, nurses, midwives, paramedics, social workers, care workers, and other frontline health and social care staff.” (As of last week, those age 50 and older are now eligible in England.)