NHS surcharges have been dropped for overseas health workers. We must now end all unfair healthcare costs

Doctors in Unite is delighted that the government have seen sense and ended the NHS surcharge for overseas health workers. We all owe health workers from overseas a huge debt. They often carry out the work which attracts the lowest pay, and without them the NHS would collapse. They don’t just contribute in the hours they work; they also pay taxes like any other citizen.

The government must now go further and drop the NHS surcharge for all overseas migrants and end charging for NHS care. Anything less disregards the founding principles of the NHS as a comprehensive health care service, publicly funded and publicly provided for all.

Nye Bevan never intended the overseas visitor to pay for the NHS. He said, “how do we distinguish a visitor from anybody else? Are British citizens to carry means of identification everywhere to prove that they are not visitors? For if the sheep are to be separated from the goats both must be classified. What began as an attempt to keep the health service for ourselves would end by being a nuisance to everybody.”

We must end all charging in the NHS now.

Blanket DNACPRs are not the solution for panicked healthcare rationing

The rising death rate from COVID-19 and the pressure of the pandemic on a weakened NHS have caused warranted anxiety. There were reports from Italy of rationing, when life saving equipment was simply unavailable for some sick patients, and difficult triage decisions had to be made by doctors. Many deaths in the UK are occurring among elderly residents of care homes, and unlike deaths in hospital, these have not been given prominence in daily reports.

Press coverage has indicated that Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) agreements have been misused. Rather than an agreement on a one to one basis after full discussion and as part of advance care planning, marginalised groups such as the elderly and disabled have been asked for consent by letter. In some cases decisions have been made on their behalf.

Such agreements should only apply to what happens in the event of the heart stopping during an illness, but they have been wrongly interpreted as consent to not having treatment for illness, or not being admitted to hospital.

Professional bodies such as the British Medical Association are attempting to provide an ethical framework for health care staff faced with impossible decisions regarding rationing and who should take precedence. Not only has the government failed to provide guidance on this matter, perhaps because it undermines their narrative that the NHS is coping with the onslaught and will continue to do so. Their grotesque incompetence in failing to follow World Health Organisation advice has put front line workers in an unprecedented position: having to make decisions about who should and who should not receive care.

The government, policymakers, managers and clinicians have a responsibility to patients. They must ensure that any system used to assess the escalation or de-escalation of care does not disadvantage any one group disproportionately. Treatment should be considered irrespective of a person’s background when it can help them survive, balanced against the risk of that treatment causing harm.

A GP surgery in Wales sent letters to patients asking them to complete a DNACPR form, reportedly stating “several benefits” to its completion. The form explained that “your GP and more importantly your friends and family will know not to call 999” and that “scarce ambulance resources can be targeted to the young and fit who have a greater chance.”

In an “ideal situation”, it continued, doctors would have had this conversation in person with vulnerable patients, but had written instead due to fears the doctors may be asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus. The practice later apologised to recipients of the letter.

A GP surgery in Somerset also wrote letters to a support group for adults with autism, requesting they make plans to prevent their clients being resuscitated if they become critically ill. The letter was later withdrawn after criticism.

The Guardian has reported that “elderly care home residents have been categorised ‘en masse’ as not requiring resuscitation”, and that “people in care homes in Hove, East Sussex and south Wales are among those who have had ‘do not attempt resuscitation’ notices applied to their care plans during the coronavirus outbreak without proper consultation with them or their families”.

The Mirror also reported that adult patients and parents of children with chronic conditions were sent letters asking if they wanted to have DNACPR statements agreed in case of admission to hospital with coronavirus.

A learning disability care provider described an unprecedented increase in the number of DNACPR letters it had received. In the Health Service Journal their spokesperson said “making an advance decision not to administer CPR if a person’s heart stops, solely because they have a learning disability, is not only illegal, it is an outrage.

“We are seeing DNR orders that have not been discussed with the person themselves, the staff who support and care for them, or their families. This is very concerning as it may potentially lead to people being denied life-saving treatment that other patients would be granted”.

NHS Trusts, GPs and clinical commissioning groups have been told by NHS England they must not send out blanket DNACPR forms.

The British Medical Association, Royal College of Nursing and Resuscitation Council UK provide detailed guidance on decisions relating to cardiopulmonary resuscitation. CPR was introduced in the 1960s following recognition that some hearts could be restarted when they had stopped beating, often after a heart attack.

The probability of CPR being successful in other situations is generally low. It involves compressing the chest, delivering high voltage electric shocks to the heart, attempts to ventilate the lungs and giving intravenous drugs. Injury to ribs and internal organs may occur and some patients survive only to spend long periods in intensive care without full recovery. This is why people talk about the risks and benefits of CPR.

The heart and lungs stopping is a natural part of dying from any cause. When CPR is used in people who have been gravely ill it is very unlikely to work. Rather than a peaceful death, their lives could end in the context of aggressive but futile attempts to change an irreversible process.

To prevent this happening patients can be asked well in advance about their wishes, with a full exploration of the issues involved. In normal circumstances, the decision to not attempt CPR is made after a discussion between patient and doctor. An understanding can be reached that because of frailty, and because the heart stopping is the final stage of an irreversible process of multiple organ failure, the potential benefits to the patients are outweighed by the risks of pain and indignity.

Standardised DNACPR forms were introduced to attempt to ensure patients’ wishes were recorded and would be easily available to healthcare staff. They do not have to be signed by patients. The member of the healthcare team who has discussed CPR with the patient signs the form, as does the responsible senior clinician (this may well be the same person).

Doctors are told by their professional organisations that “considering explicitly, and whenever possible making specific anticipatory decisions about, whether or not to attempt CPR is an important part of good-quality care for any person who is approaching the end of life and/or is at risk of cardiorespiratory arrest.

“If cardiorespiratory arrest is not predicted or reasonably foreseeable in the current circumstances or treatment episode, it is not necessary to initiate discussion about CPR with patients.

“For many people, anticipatory decisions about CPR are best made in the wider context of advance care planning, before a crisis necessitates a hurried decision in an emergency setting.”

The purpose of advance care planning is to allow each individual to choose in advance what interventions, including CPR, they wish to receive in the event of deterioration in their health. For people with multiple conditions, or those who are severely unwell, the optimal time to undertake advance care planning is when they are relatively stable. Discussions are best had in their home or usual care environment where planning can be supported by the healthcare professionals who know them well. These may include doctors and nurses based in general practice, in the community, in hospices or in hospitals. Making a decision in advance ensures that there is time for all the appropriate people to be involved in a decision. It allows time for reflection and scrutiny.

Decisions made may be written down, and described variously as a living will, personal directive, advance directive, medical directive, or advance decision. This is a legally enforceable document in which a person specifies what treatments or interventions they would not wish to undertake in the future if they are unable, due to illness, to give their opinion at that time.

Nearly one in five people over 80 may need hospitalisation with COVID-19. An estimated 1.28% of people diagnosed with COVID-19 will die. Around half of patients ill enough to be admitted to ICU in the UK for ventilation have died. 95% of UK COVID-19 deaths have occurred in patients with underlying medical conditions.

Consequently asking people most at risk to decide what they would like to happen in the event of them becoming unwell is sensible, and good medical practice.

It is however important to distinguish this from a blanket application of DNACPR orders to particular groups. This is discriminatory and illegal. There must be full consultation with the individual concerned. A thorough face-to-face discussion with staff who know the patient well is required. This has clearly not happened in the examples cited in the press.

Care workers may worry about breaking social isolation rules and potentially infecting patients at home visits. There are ways around this, including video consultations. Poor communication over such sensitive issues breeds mistrust.

The risks and benefits of CPR may change in the context of coronavirus. In patients with COVID-19 pneumonia who then have a cardiac arrest, not only is there little likelihood of CPR restarting the heart, there is the potential for health personnel to become infected as a consequence of attempted resuscitation.

Professional guidelines are however quite clear. “A decision not to attempt CPR applies only to CPR. All other appropriate treatment and care for that person should continue. It is important that this is widely understood by healthcare professionals and that it is made clear to patients and those close to them.

This is essential as it is a common fear amongst members of the public that a ‘DNACPR’ decision will lead to withholding of other elements of treatment.”

For example, if someone in a care home agrees to a DNACPR, it does not mean they cannot be admitted to hospital if appropriate, or that they cannot be considered for intensive care. It only means that if their heart stops, resuscitation would not be attempted.

There is an anxiety about the availability of resources if the number of patients overwhelms the amount of life saving equipment available. The COVID-19 pandemic is a major challenge for a weakened NHS. The elderly, care home residents and those with disabilities are being marginalised. The government mantra of “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” led people with acute medical conditions to avoid medical attention when they needed it, and encouraged some ill with COVID-19 to stay out of hospital, dying at home when they may have survived.

The idea of rationing life saving care is anathema to healthcare staff, but it may be on the horizon. In Italy, which has twice as many ventilators per 100,000 population as the UK, there were age cut-offs applied for admission to intensive care. Ventilator treatment was withdrawn from some patients expected to do badly in favour of younger patients with a better prognosis.

If rationing does become a reality, front line teams will try and work in accordance with accepted ethical principles. This will unfortunately not provide perfect answers.

Ethicist and barrister Daniel Sokol described the dilemma on April 7th. “It is no secret that intensive care unit (ICU) capacity may be overwhelmed if the pandemic worsens. Why then is there so little published guidance on ICU triage from the UK government and NHS Trusts? The Royal College of Physicians’ ethical guidance on covid-19, published on 2nd April 2020, stated that ‘any guidance should be accountable, inclusive, transparent, reasonable and responsive.’ The British Medical Association’s ethical guidance, published the next day, emphasised the need for decisions to be made ‘openly, transparently, by appropriate bodies and with full public participation’.”

Sokol asked, “Where are the protocols setting out the triage criteria?” He suggested that senior officials in the government and NHS England may be reluctant to publish anything that might clash with the current messaging that the NHS is managing present demand and is likely to continue to cope. “The official message is that with continued communal efforts the NHS can be protected, ICU need not be overwhelmed, and tragic choices will be avoided. Publishing a document that contemplates an NHS in chaos and tragic choices aplenty sits awkwardly with that message”.

He also wondered if fear of legal challenge was a factor. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence was threatened with judicial review on publishing its COVID-19 guideline for clinical care. This advice was subsequently amended due to concerns about unlawful discrimination against people with long-term conditions including autism and learning disabilities.

The 2019 National Security Risk Assessment also highlighted the potential for public outrage if health and care systems were seen to struggle, especially if provision of the remaining services was unevenly distributed.

There are no ethical guidelines from the Department of Health or NHS England for front line staff and senior managers relating specifically to COVID-19, but the British Medical Association (BMA), Royal Colleges and specialist medical bodies have produced their own.

The BMA suggests, “All patients should be given compassionate and dedicated medical care including symptom management and, where patients are dying, the best available end-of-life care. Nevertheless, it is legal and ethical to prioritise treatment among patients. This applies where there are more patients with needs than available resources can meet.”

To help decide which patients to treat, they ask doctors to “follow your organisation’s guidelines and protocols, including relevant procedures for making complex ethical decisions. The speed of patient’s anticipated benefit will be critical. Other relevant factors include: severity of acute illness; presence and severity of co-morbidity; frailty or, where clinically relevant, age.

“Managers and senior clinicians will set thresholds for admission to intensive care or the use of highly limited treatments such as mechanical ventilation or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation based on the above factors. Patients whose probability of dying, or requiring prolonged intensive support, exceeds this set threshold would not be considered for intensive treatment. They should still receive other forms of medical care. Prioritisation decisions must be based on the best available clinical evidence, including clinical triage advice from clinical bodies. These criteria must be applied to all presenting patients, not only those with COVID-19.”

The Royal College of Physicians says, “Any decisions made to begin, withdraw or withhold care must also comply with the shared decision-making policies of the NHS. This means that these decisions should include the patient and their wishes (as much as is feasible for the given situation) and, if appropriate, the patient’s carers. This is true regardless of whether the patient has COVID-19.

“Front-line staff, policymakers, management and government have a responsibility to patients to ensure that any system used to assess patients for escalation or de-escalation of care does not disadvantage any one group disproportionately. Treatment should be provided, irrespective of the individual’s background (e.g. disability) where it is considered that it will help the patient survive and not harm their long-term health and wellbeing.

“Many front-line staff will already be caring for patients for whom any escalation of care, regardless of the current pandemic, would be inappropriate, and must be properly managed. We strongly encourage that all front-line staff have discussions with those relevant patients for whom an advance care plan is appropriate, so as to be clear in advance the wishes of their patients should their condition deteriorate during the pandemic.”

There is an urgent need for national guidance from the Department of Health and NHS England on how to manage if resources run out. In the absence of such guidance, individual clinicians will be using the available evidence to assist in making extremely challenging decisions.

This will not be an easy task, as illustrated by one Italian doctor speaking to the New York Times. “If you admit an 82-year-old with hypertension, in a situation where you have two or three patients waiting outside your I.C.U. who have many more chances of survival that you cannot admit because your I.C.U. is full, then it becomes really inappropriate, or I would say, immoral”.

It is outrageous that UK medical staff may be put in this position due to the government’s incompetence.

Dr John Puntis is the co-chair of Keep Our NHS Public

Thoughtlessly placed DNARs do harm to patients and doctors

Doctors in Unite reiterate our opposition to any scoring system being used as a blanket cut-off to people accessing hospital care. We understand that conversations with patients about their wishes with regard to treatment and end of life care can be very helpful to ensure dignity in dying, but these must be undertaken with the utmost sensitivity, and with the best interests of the patient and their loved ones at its core.  These conversations must never be a means of rationing care or of ticking a box in a care plan.

We are increasingly concerned to hear of incidents across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, where patients who score above a threshold on various frailty indices have had conversations with health care workers in which the patient felt pressurised to agree to a DNAR and to give up the right to be admitted to hospital. Health care workers often feel that they are responding to official guidance and that they have no choice but to comply. This is fundamentally wrong. Health care workers must always place the interests of their patients as their main obligation and duty.

Of course not everyone will benefit from intensive procedures such as ventilation, but even the most frail may benefit from less interventionist treatment such as specialist assessment, symptom control, antibiotics or oxygen. It has been reported that the bed occupancy in some NHS facilities is lower than usual. Despite this thousands of people are dying in care homes, some of whom may have benefitted from hospital admission.

We restate our conviction that every life is of equal value. There must be no arbitrary thresholds above which treatment is withheld, and no one must feel coerced into forgoing treatment which is their right out of guilt that there are not enough NHS services to go around, especially when there is reported to be capacity in NHS hospitals.

Dr Jackie Applebee is the chair of Doctors in Unite

Matt Hancock offered to auction his football shirt for the NHS – we need proper funding, not charity gimmicks

Doctors in Unite would like to remind the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that the NHS is not a charity but a government funded health service, set up in 1948 with the specific intention to remove health care from the precarious state of reliance on income or beneficence.

Matt Hancock has his hands on the levers of government, he should be using his time and influence to bring investment in the NHS and Social Care up to the levels needed to redress the years of systematic underfunding, fragmentation and privatisation which have contributed hugely to the failures we now see in the government’s ability to cope with the challenges of COVID-19, not trivialising matters by suggesting that all of the problems can be solved with the sale of a football shirt.

Dr Jackie Applebee is the chair of Doctors in Unite

The hostile environment is inconsistent with government commitments on child health and the fight against COVID-19

Charging those with uncertain immigration status for NHS services was introduced as part of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’. Non-payment of bills can result in being reported to the Home Office and used as a reason for not being granted settled status. This system remains in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, actively discouraging health care seeking with the threat of immigration enforcement.  Among around 618,000 people are living in the UK but without the documentation to prove a regular immigration status, and it is estimated that 144,000 of them are children (1), half having been born here. The legislation over charging introduced by the Tory government under the spurious pretext of targeting ‘health tourism’ represented an unprecedented departure from the founding principles of the NHS and among other consequences undermines child health (2).

On a global scale, the numbers of people forcibly displaced from their homes because of conflict, persecution, natural disasters and famine reached 68.5 million by the end for 2017 and continues to rise. Children make up over half the world’s refugees and, like other asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, they are exposed to multiple risk factors for poor physical and mental health throughout their migration experience (3). NHS charging regulations undermine the government’s stated commitments to child health as well as obligations to children under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 24), and also contradict recommendations outlined in the UN Global Compact for Migration, signed by the UK in 2018 (2).

A briefing paper from Medact (https://www.medact.org) written to support those campaigning against the hostile environment in the NHS (4) argues that the health system functions as a foundation for societal wellbeing and a platform for the expression of ethical behaviour. The NHS was founded on the principle of treating everyone in the country regardless of status, wealth or origin. The idea that people can be either eligible or ineligible to access care contradicts the central reasoning behind collective provision in which pooling finances through general taxation shares risk and ensures equity in healthcare for all (4). This is brought into sharp focus by the current challenge set by coronavirus. While it has been argued that services for treatment of infectious diseases, including the tests required to diagnose them, are in fact exempt from charges, people do not present with a ‘diagnosis’ but with symptoms. This means that for many, fear of incurring charges will still prevent them from seeking care for themselves or their children. As we move once again towards much needed contact tracing as a crucial element in disease containment, it has been pointed out that for this to be viable, all sections of the community must be willing to be contacted by the NHS or public health staff (5). Unlike the UK, the Irish government has declared that all people—documented or undocumented—can now access healthcare and social services without fear. Undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers in Portugal have been granted the same rights as residents, including access to medical care, and in South Korea they can be tested without risk of deportation (5). Once again it appears that public schoolboy concepts of British ‘exceptionalism’ are facilitating racism and inequity with negative effects on the entire population.

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Faculty of Public Health (FPH) had raised concerns about the potential for under-diagnosis and under-treatment of infectious diseases arising from the charging policy (6). Medact called on care providers to undertake detailed research into the impact of both charging and identity checks on patients’ health and on a hospital’s ability to meet its equality duty, and other legal obligations including professional duties of care that staff have towards their patients. It also called upon the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to commission a full independent inquiry into the impact of the Regulations on individual and public health; and publish their own internal review of the 2017 Charging. Unfortunately these things have not happened, although members of Medact in conjunction with paediatrician colleagues have themselves recently published a revealing investigation into attitudes towards and understanding of UK healthcare charging among members of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) (7). 

From 200 responses by healthcare staff, it was evidence that there was a lack of understanding of current NHS charging regulations and their intended application, with 94% saying they were not confident about which health conditions are exempt from charging regulations and one third reporting examples of how the charging regulations have negatively impacted upon patient care. The survey identified 18 cases of migrants being deterred from accessing healthcare, 11 cases of healthcare being delayed or denied outright, and 12 cases of delay in accessing care leading to worse health outcomes, including two intrauterine deaths. The authors of the study concluded that NHS charging regulations are having direct and indirect impacts on migrant children and pregnant women, with evidence of a broad range of harms. Additionally, that they are unworkable and are having a detrimental impact on the wider health system, as well as conflicting with its staff’s professional and ethical responsibilities (7).

In 2018, the RCPCH joined with the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the FPH to call on the DHSC to suspend the National Health Service (Charges to Overseas Visitors) Regulations 2015 and the National Health Service (Charges to Overseas Visitors) (Amendment) Regulations 2017, pending a full independent review of their impact on individual and public health (8). Following the publication of the recent survey (7), the RCPCH reiterated its opposition to charging, observing that: “This policy has, sadly, placed vulnerable groups at risk of worsened health outcomes as they choose to delay or deter seeking treatment” (9). On a broader front, the Institute of Race Relations has publicised how the appallingly overcrowded and unhygienic housing offered to some asylum seekers and their young children is putting them at increased risk of Covid-19 infection (10). Sixty cross-party MPs have now written to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, calling for the suspension of charging for migrants and all associated data-sharing and immigration checks, which they say are undermining the government’s efforts to respond to the pandemic (11). We should all reiterate this call and insist that these demands are implemented with immediate effect.

  1. Dexter Z, Capron L, Gregg L. Making life impossible – how the needs of destitute migrant children are going unmet. The Children’s Society, 2016. https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/resources-and-publications/making-life-impossible-how-the-needs-of-destitute-migrant
  2. Russell NJ, Murphy K, Nellums L, et al. Charging undocumented migrant children for NHS healthcare. Arch Dis Child 2019;104;722-723
  3. Stevens AJ. How can we meet the health needs of child refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants? Arch Dis Child 2020;105:191-196
  4. https://www.medact.org/2019/resources/briefings/patients-not-passports/
  5. https://www.bmj.com/content/368/bmj.m1284/rr
  6. https://www.fph.org.uk/media/2158/final-fph_briefing_nhschargingregs_1.pdf
  7. Murphy L, Broad J, Hopkinshaw B, et al. Healthcare access for children and famiies on the move and migrants. BMJ Paediatrics Open 2020. https://bmjpaedsopen.bmj.com/content/4/1/e000588
  8. https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/news/royalcolleges-support-suspension-nhs-overseas-visitor-charges-pending-review
  9. https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/news-events/news/migrant-charges-unworkable-say-paediatricians
  10. http://www.irr.org.uk/news/asylum-in-the-time-of-covid-19/
  11. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/coronavirus-undocumented-migrants-deaths-cases-nhs-matt-hancock-a9470581.html

John Puntis, co-chair of Keep our NHS Public (KONP)