Countless red dots scattered across the world map on the wall of a NHS hospital reveal the story of the changing face of Britain.
Each dot denotes the background of a mother with a baby in the neonatal ward of London’s Chelsea and Westminster hospital. The map was put up by hospital administrators to ‘celebrate the ethnic diversity’ of the sick children treated there, each at a cost of £1,400 a day.
It shows dramatically how the NHS now treats patients from every corner of the globe.
The 243 mothers are from 72 different nations. They include Mongolia, the remotest regions of Russia, Japan, Africa, South America, swathes of Asia, Australasia and even Papua New Guinea.
Only 18 mothers said they were from Britain.
The women were invited to put a dot on the map to ‘represent’ their home country. One, a London-born mother of a baby treated there earlier this summer, sent the Mail a photograph of the result.
She said: ‘Almost every cot and incubator at this wonderful unit was occupied by a baby with a foreign mother. Interpreters were on hand to make sure the mothers understood the doctors.
‘Babies’ lives are being saved and that is a good thing. Yet this seemed like a free-for-all.’
It is impossible to say how long each of the mothers has been in this country. But the fact is only a fraction of them declared themselves as having a British background.
In theory, only a woman who has lived here legally for a year or has a student visa lasting more than six months is entitled to free NHS care when giving birth.
Yet few hospitals are prepared to turn away a pregnant patient in the late stages of labour. Indeed, the Government recently issued an instruction telling them to admit such women without question.
Health Minister Ann Keen pronounced in July: ‘We remain firmly committed to the requirement that immediately necessary or urgent treatment should never be denied or delayed from those that require it.’
Many nurses and doctors on the NHS frontline believe her words were dangerously naive, even an explicit invitation to heavily pregnant women to fly to Britain to have babies. Some have arrived at Chelsea and Westminster–and other London hospitals–straight from the airport with the ticket tags still on their suitcases.
Mothers-to-be target this country as ‘health tourists’ for a variety of reasons. Some do so because they face a difficult birth and want expert care unavailable in their home countries.
Others have been told by doctors abroad that their baby will be born with a profound illness, needing a lifetime of treatment and medicines. They know the NHS will provide this with few questions asked even if the bill reaches millions of pounds.
The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital
Chelsea and Westminster said the hospital cared for patients from many different backgrounds, reflecting London’s population. The map was intended to illustrate the diversity of the families of babies on the ward
The Chelsea and Westminster Hospital’s neonatal ward treats 500 newborns each year from London and the south east. Many of the babies have been born prematurely or have inherited illnesses.
They include those with ailments such as sickle cell anaemia (which is prevalent in African and Mediterranean communities, while almost unknown among those of northern European heritage), the HIV virus passed on from the mother, as well as deafness, blindness and devastating neurological problems common among ethnic communities in which marriages between cousins are the norm.
Today nearly 25 percent of babies in Britain have mothers who were born abroad. In London the figure is 50 percent. The boroughs of Newham and Brent have the highest percentage, 75 percent and 73 percent respectively. Even in Chelsea (an area less associated with immigration) the figure is 67 percent, according to a recent Government report.
Britain’s population is expected to grow from 61 million to 74 million over the next 20 years, the Office for National Statistics said last week. The estimate is based on both the continuing high birthrate of migrant mothers and levels of immigration as well as the longer life expectancy of the entire population.
Meanwhile, at least three million foreigners have settled here legally since 1997–a rate of 700 a day. Nearly a million more are living here illegally, the Home Office has admitted.
Bliss, a campaigning charity supporting families with premature and sick babies, recently said that the NHS needs 2,700 more neonatal nurses to cope with growing numbers of baby births. They now total 791,000 a year, up 33,000 from 2007.
Back at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, the colourful world baby map, proudly displayed on the wall for three months, was recently removed during construction work.
Last night, a spokesperson for Chelsea and Westminster said that the hospital cared for patients from many different backgrounds, reflecting London’s population. The map was intended to illustrate the diversity of the families of babies on the ward.
The hospital also issued the following statement: ‘Chelsea and Westminster Hospital is a specialist referral centre and cares for patients of many different backgrounds, reflecting London’s very diverse population.
‘Of the 550 babies admitted to our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) every year, a very small number of these are overseas patients. In 2009, there have been just two overseas admissions.
‘The map was placed in the NICU nearly four years ago to provide the families of the babies we care for, as well as staff, with an opportunity to indicate their background if they wished. It is not an indication of country of residence or citizenship.
‘It was intended to illustrate the diversity of staff working on the unit and the families of the babies we care for, to encourage everyone to reflect on different cultures, in a fun and informal way.
‘Chelsea and Westminster Hospital’s NICU provides intensive care, high dependency and special care facilities for babies and is a specialist referral centre for neonatal surgery.’