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2020 Highlights: Lewisham pupils call for end to migrant charges

Last year a group of school children, with the help of Citizens UK and Lewisham Refugee and Migrant network, sent 60 hand-drawn Christmas cards to the chief executive of Lewisham and Greenwich NHS trust calling for an end to migrant charges.

More than sixty pupils from years five and six at St Mary’s CE Primary School in Lewisham decided to campaign on the issue after seeing the effects of the charging policy on their friends and family.

It followed a listening exercise with pupils and parents by Lewisham Citizens, part of community organising group Citizens UK, asking them what they wanted to make change on.

The NHS provides free healthcare to anyone who is a legal resident of the UK but is required by law to charge migrants or patients who are not ordinarily residents in the UK since a coalition decision in 2015 to tackle ‘health tourism’.

Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust came under fire last year for using credit checking agency Experian to assess whether patients were eligible for care.

Last week four students walked to Lewisham Hospital, across the road from the school, to deliver the cards.

They put the cards into two bags, one labelled ‘nice’ with treats to thank the Trust for all they do, and one labelled ‘naughty’ to highlight the charging practices.

Messages on the Christmas cards included:

  • ‘All I want for Christmas is for free care whenever anyone needs it because, even though everyone is different, we are in this together no matter what happens’- Erika
  • ‘All I want for Christmas is fairness and equality! I don’t think it’s fair that people from other countries have to pay so please please help and create fairness!’ – Kiara
  • ‘All I want for Christmas is free healthcare, because if the care at the hospital isn’t free then people won’t choose to get help from the hospital’- Jaswin

Marta Tildesley is a school home support lead who helps families at the school navigate NHS charging, and leads on the work with Lewisham Citizens.

She said: “For families who have no recourse to public funds or whose immigration status is as yet unsettled this has a huge impact.

“That is because they worry about being refused treatment or being presented with an enormous bill for treatment even though emergency care has to be provided free of charge.

“For example, the nursery child of one of our families was refused an ear operation at Lewisham hospital until his mother began to pay off a debt owed to King’s College for giving birth.

“Mum came to us in absolute distress that her son was being refused treatment.

“These families are under enormous financial disadvantage anyway and to have this added to their worries is quite simply inhumane.”

One parent at the school was charged thousands of pounds for giving birth.

She was unable to pay so debt collectors were sent to her home.

A spokesperson from Citizens UK said: “Official guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care explains that Trusts can choose to write off debts where it is clear that a person is destitute.

“However Trusts often don’t use this power, leaving many families with debts they will never be able to pay.”

B, who was undocumented until recently, is a parent leader with St Mary’s CE Primary School Immigration Action Project, and leader with Lewisham Citizens.

They said: “My friend went to Lewisham Hospital and they threatened to call immigration.

“So instead she went to King’s College London Hospital -although they still sent bills to her as required by law, they didn’t threaten to call immigration and they treated her much better.”

A spokesperson for Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust said: “We thank the children for their messages of support and for their feedback.

“We will continue to work with the council and local groups to make sure that we are as compassionate as possible in how we engage with patients to meet the legal requirements in this area.

“It is important to note that urgent and emergency NHS care is free for all.”


Citizens UK & the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network are both part of the campaign to make Lewisham a Borough of Sanctuary.