• Health committee calls for halt to patient data sharing with Home Office
  • NHS Digital says it is considering the letter
  • MPs say arrangement “incompatible” with NHS code of confidentiality

NHS Digital is considering a direct demand from the Commons health committee chair to immediately stop sharing patients’ confidential information with the Home Office, calling the arrangement “unacceptable”.

In a letter to NHS Digital chief executive Sarah Wilkinson today, committee chair Sarah Wollaston said the arrangement, in which the confidential information of patients deemed potential illegal immigrants is shared with the Home Office, should cease pending a review.

Responding to the letter of Thursday morning, a NHS Digital spokeswoman said: ”We can confirm we have received a letter from the chair of the health select committee. We will consider it carefully and will respond fully in due course.”

NHS Digital is designated the data “safe haven” for the NHS and holds a vast amounts of identifiable patient information.

The letter comes after the committee heard evidence earlier this month that the record sharing was dissuading immigrants from seeking medical attention for fear their confidential details would used to track them down for deportation.

In the letter, Dr Wollaston said she understood that the information, such as a patient’s home address, was useful to the Home Office in tracking illegal immigrants but the ”NHS should not place that above the serious adverse consequences of such a decision”.

”Our brief inquiry suggests very strongly—contrary to your own assessment—that the public interest in the disclosure of information held by the NHS is heavily outweighed by the public interest in the maintenance of a confidential medical service.”

The decision to share the data - first revealed by HSJ last year - was not consulted upon adequately, including with NHS Digital’s own panel set-up to scrutinise the sharing on NHS data with outside agencies, the letter said.

It also ignored concerns raised by both Public Health England and the National Data Guardian that the arrangement could damage both the monitoring of public health and public confidence in the confidentiality of their NHS records.

”This lack of consultation has resulted in a situation where data-sharing is taking place in a manner which is incompatible both with the guidance on confidentiality given by the GMC and the NHS Code of Confidentiality. We find that situation unacceptable.”

A proposed review of the arrangement by Public Health England was also deemed “little more than window dressing”.

If NHS Digital did not respond adequately to the committee’s recommendations, it could expect further hearings in which it would be required to make ”a very much more convincing case” to continue sharing the data.

In a further statement, Dr Wollaston said the ”actions not only undermine public confidence in confidentiality but put at risk the efforts to build support for data sharing in other vital areas such as medical research”.

HSJ first revealed the agreement between NHS Digital and the Home Office in January 2017, after the two agencies signed a memorandum of understanding formalising a long-running informal sharing of patient records.  

Under the arrangement NHS Digital will share, upon request, a person’s name and last known address, their date of birth, primary care service area code and GP contact details, as well as the date of registration with the NHS. It does not cover medical records.

Former NHS Digital chair, Kingsley Manning later told HSJ that while in the job he repeatedly resisted “immense pressure” from the Home Office, then under Theresa May, to share patient’s record because of confidentiality concerns.

Since the memorandum was signed, after Mr Manning left the organisation, thousands of patients details have been shared with Home Office.

Earlier this month Ms Wilkinson, who was chief information officer at the Home Office before taking up the helm at NHS Digital, told the health committee the agency was “duty bound” to share the patient details with the Home Office.