I’m returning my medal in protest at ‘hostile environment’ policy

After volunteering during an Ebola outbreak in Africa, I can’t support the UK government charging refugees for care, and turning nurses into border guards

After volunteering during an ebola outbreak in Africa, I can’t support the UK government charging refugees for care, and turning nurses into border guards

Charity Garnett, third from left, with refugee campaigner Lord Dubs (centre) and the
other campaigners returning their medals 

When I was a staff nurse in the emergency department at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, I worked alongside military colleagues who were deployed to Sierra Leone to tackle the 2014 Ebola epidemic.

Confronted with the appalling stories coming out of West Africa, and knowing that Ebola threatens millions of people globally, I felt I should volunteer.

Helping the sick and vulnerable

I was part of an amazing operation involving NHS staff, the military, non-governmental organisations and healthcare and sanitation workers from Sierra Leone. 

As well as struggling with the devastating effect of Ebola on Sierra Leone’s economy, education and health systems, local workers were ostracised for caring for patients with the disease, which is spread by contact with bodily fluids. Those who care for the sick are at higher risk.

I met a mother whose four children died from Ebola, after becoming infected at their grandmother’s funeral. She couldn’t even start to grieve as her main concern was where her next meal was coming from. 

After I returned from Sierra Leone, I received a medal in honour of my service. Yet I, along with 17 others who received this honour, have now returned my medal to the government. 

Uncaring and inhumane

I went to Sierra Leone because I felt a solidarity across borders with people who were suffering, and I cannot respect a government with such little humanity that it won’t recognise the needs of vulnerable people in its society.

‘Rather than deter health tourists, these charges penalise the most vulnerable, including pregnant women, children, those fleeing torture and victims of human trafficking’

Recent regulations require the NHS to cooperate with the government’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies. A report from human rights organisation Liberty, published in April, reveals that undocumented people are forced to pay 150% of the true cost of their NHS treatment up front.

Rather than deter health tourists, these charges penalise the most vulnerable, including pregnant women, children, those fleeing torture and victims of human trafficking.

Other countries with greater numbers of undocumented people and refugees have not brought in such harsh measures, and ensure that pregnant women and children are treated. Even poorer countries with a higher proportion of refugees, such as Thailand, allow vulnerable groups to access healthcare.

The right to healthcare is enshrined in international law and is fundamental to the ethos of the NHS, an organisation of which I am proud to be a part.

But this ‘hostile environment’ is at odds with the founding principles of the NHS. Not only does it threaten public health, it creates suffering as people delay or avoid seeking help for fear of detection, detention or treatment cost.

The government wants nurses to be border guards, and I won’t do it. 

Too scared to seek help

By the government’s own analysis, the cost of ‘health tourism’ is less than 0.3% of the NHS budget.

As well as a huge human cost, these regressive regulations may cost more than they save due to added bureaucracy and worsening public and individual health as a result of undiagnosed and untreated conditions.  

Complications in pregnancy that could easily be treated are going undetected and causing long-term health problems for ‘undocumented’ babies whose mothers are too scared to seek help.

Infectious diseases are supposedly exempt. But a disease can only be diagnosed once the symptoms have been investigated by health professionals – impossible if people are too afraid to access services.

People who have no voice

By handing back our medals, we hope to raise awareness of the people in our country who have no platform from which to speak.

The arguments based on public health and common decency are overwhelmed by the scapegoating of vulnerable groups, and the anti-immigration rhetoric that obscures the chronic underfunding of our NHS.  

Research shows more migrants are working to support the NHS and care services – often at a loss to their own country’s healthcare systems – than are ‘draining’ resources from ours. 

We are calling on the government to repeal these regulations, to ensure that children and pregnant women have access to healthcare, and to suspend all charging pending a public health impact assessment with a focus on vulnerable groups.   

I trained to be a nurse because I want to deliver compassionate care to my patients. Compassion recognises that your suffering is my suffering. It led me to go to Sierra Leone and I have handed back my medal to stand up for it.  

Find out more about our campaign to end the government’s ‘hostile environment’ here

Charity Garnett is a palliative care specialist nurse in mid Wales



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