Grenfell laid raw the harsh realities for many living in London today. Many stories unfolded in the aftermath. There was the tale of two cites. The question of worth. The story of inexcusable inequality, and lives cut short by political failings. There was also the story of invisibility and fear. The undocumented migrants who died in the fire, forever anonymous, and the survivors who went into hiding, too scared to seek help.
I went to Grenfell with the charity Doctors of the world UK, a week after the fire. At Westway, the pop-up relief centre, we enquired who to liaise with and were told to speak to Sheena*, she appeared to be coordinating the medical response. We arranged a meeting, she explained what medical support was currently happening and we discussed the logistics of how our charity could help. At the end of the meeting, I asked what was her position. I had assumed she was from the government, or Public Health England, or at least from the council. She told us she was a film maker, lived locally, and had come to help the day after the fire. In the void of any eminence of leadership, she ended up as the unofficial coordinator of the medical response. I was dumbfounded.
There was no doubt that Sheena* and all the other volunteers at Westway, were doing incredible work to provide their best support for the Grenfell victims. But I couldn’t help ask myself the question; Had it been the neighbouring luxury flats in flames, would the medical relief effort been left to be coordinated by a film maker? It just seemed ludicrous.
In the weeks after the fire, the question I heard repeatedly, how did this happen in the richest borough in London? The question we should have been asking, prior to Grenfell, is why in Kensington borough, is there a 14 year difference in average life expectancy between the richest and the poor? Why, since 2010, did that century long increase in life expectancy plateau?
According to DoH own data, in all of their 15 markers, health inequality among rich and poor has widened under the coalition and the Tories (after improving over the previous decade). Grenfell laid it raw. But across the UK lives everyday are silently cut short, from austerity, poor housing, deprivation and political decisions.
It also became very clear within our first few hours at Westway, that in Grenfel tower there had been many asylum seekers and undocumented migrants residing. Many had since gone into hiding, too scared to seek help or medical care as they feared deportation. A volunteer told me there was family that had escaped and were worried about their baby’s breathing, but were too scared to seek help as they had a teenage son who was undocumented. We were told of an African women in her 40s, who had fallen down the stairs on escaping the fire. Her partner and relatives were missing, She was experiencing dizziness and memory loss, but was too scared to go to A&E.
Unfortunately, their fears are not ill-founded. Under public pressure, Theresa May stated that survivors would not face immigration checks when assessing services. However, the government have not stated details of how these exemptions should work in practice. There are also fears that information on those seeking help could be kept by the home office to be used at a later date, once the spotlight has left grenfell. For our charity (doctors of the World UK), migrants too scared to access care is not a new story. At our clinic in Bethnal green, we regularly see pregnant women, cancer patients, victims of trafficking and abuse, too scared to access mainstream health services. This is due to laws brought in under Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, which uses healthcare as an anti-immigration tool. The most recent, brought in this April has made it a mandatory legal requirement for healthcare staff to refer migrant patients to the home office if they access hospital care.
There is also new concerns about GP surgeries. This is due to a controversial deal the home office has with NHS Digital (that was introduced without the knowledge of NHS staff) allowing the home office to access migrants data held by GP surgeries. The British medical association has vehemently opposed this, stating this breach of confidentiality undermines the sacred doctor patient relationship and will deter the potentially vulnerable from seeking care.
It is under these circumstances that doctors of the world was forced to launch a safe and confidential pop-up clinic near Grenfel Tower, staffed by volunteers, to help survivors who were too afraid to get NHS care. We have also written to Jeremy Hunt, urging him to publicly state that survivors will not have their details shared with the Home Office. It is shameful this needed to be done, in the aftermath of this horrific tragedy. Encouraging fear around accessing services is a dangerous policy, makes migrants vulnerable, marginalised and invisible.
Grenfel exposed the human cost of austerity. To give justice to the victims, we need to ask the difficult questions. Should the lives of all those on our streets have equal worth? If yes, we all need to confront those in power. Use your privileges to give a voice to the voiceless.
*name changed to maintain anonymity