NHS records of almost 7000 people were handed to the Home Office to help them track down illegal immigrants, it has emerged.
Although medical records are subject to data protection laws, immigration officials have made use of an exemption which allows them to access non-clinical records, with no need to obtain a court order.
These files would allow them to see when and where patients have visited the health service, but no details of the medical attention they received.
Patients’ groups are concerned that the use of NHS records by the authorities could dissuade people from seeking medical treatment.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients’ Association, said: “We are concerned to learn that the Home Office is seeking to track down potential immigration offenders by requesting their medical records
“Whilst we are aware of the Government’s need to clamp down on illegal immigrants, we don’t believe that it should be done via their medical and social care records.
“There is the very real danger that some patients may put off seeking medical help for fear of their details being leaked. Furthermore, children may suffer if parents are reluctant to take them for treatment when they are ill. The health and welfare of patients must always be the priority and we must not introduce policies which could undermine the core principles of our health service.”
The Home Office has defended its use of NHS records, arguing that any requests for information are “proportionate.”