BRITAIN has dropped plans to introduce a compulsory HIV test for immigrants applying to come to the UK, amid growing concern that it would fuel illegal immigration and drive the disease underground.
A recent survey showed that Zimbabweans contributed half of new HIV cases in the UK (read). The plans to test all immigrants had been met with great consternation among Zimbabwean exiles.
The cabinet set up a review of the issue of imported infections earlier this year to investigate whether potential immigrants could be screened for the virus as part of the visa process. It came about because of increasing concerns about how much ‘health tourism’ is costing the NHS, and the growing rates of HIV among people who have acquired the disease abroad.
But there has been mounting controversy about the idea of making would-be migrants have a mandatory Aids test before they come into Britain. Some ministers have argued that it is inherently racist as it would mostly target Africans from countries with the highest rates of the disease.
Ministers signalled to MPs last week that the plan has now been shelved, although there is not expected to be any official announcement over it. They had become concerned that the compulsory tests would have the effect of pushing up the rate of illegal immigration among groups who knew they might be harbouring the infection and would not get the all-clear from a compulsory test.
The Home Office had become increasingly worried that a mandatory HIV test would also carry the risk of pushing up rates of illegal immigration, because people who failed to be given a negative result on a test would find another pathway into Britain. They had also been warned by immigration experts of the dangers that it would create demand for forged health certificates in countries such as Botswana or Zimbabwe.
Health experts had also warned that the plan could push the disease underground, because immigrants and asylum-seekers would worry about being detained or arrested if they went for tests at an NHS clinic. There are an estimated 17,000 people in Britain who have the infection but have not yet been diagnosed with it.
The decision not to go ahead with the planis likely to provoke a backlash among groups who have argued that Britain needs to be protected from imported infections by compulsory health tests in the country of origin.
The group MigrationWatch UK, said it was dismayed by the decision to drop the plans. Its director, Sir Andrew Green, said: ‘The Government should explain why 46 other countries including Australia, Canada and the US require HIV testing before immigration, but ministers have now decided, apparently in secret, to do nothing.’
Neil Gerrard, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Aids, said he was pleased that the proposals had been dropped. ‘There have been recommendations from all kinds of bodies, including the World Health Organisation, to say that this kind of approach wouldn’t work.
‘The evidence that there are lots of people coming into Britain in order to access treatment for their Aids is actually quite sketchy. What we do know is that a lot of people who do come in with HIV have been living here for some time, and are being diagnosed at quite a late stage. What we need is to be persuading them to come for tests at an earlier stage.’