People living in the UK with unofficial or uncertain migration status are to be offered coronavirus vaccinations without any checks on their right to live in the country, the government has said.
Charities and other groups will be asked to make contact with people worried about their immigration status who are not registered with a GP to urge them to seek a vaccination.
The announcement forms part of concerted efforts to vaccinate as many people in the UK as possible, not only to reduce serious illness but also, given emerging evidence that the vaccines reduce transmission, curbing the spread of the virus.
There are no up-to-date figures on the number of people living in the UK without official permission. The last Home Office estimate, made in 2005, suggested there were about 430,000 people in the country with no right to remain. One independent study from 2019 estimated that the number could now total between 800,000 and 1.2 million.
Migrants without official status will be vaccinated in the same order as others in the UK, dependent on their age or medical status. Phase 1 of the programme, which covers offering first injections to the top nine groups seen as most vulnerable to coronavirus, up to all adults aged 50 or older, is scheduled to be completed by May.
The hope is that all those over 18 will be offered at least a first vaccination injection by the autumn.
As part of the effort to reach out to undocumented migrants, the government is stressing that vaccination is free for all, regardless of nationality and status, meaning no immigration checks are carried out.
The Department of Health and Social Care has also stressed that anyone getting a coronavirus vaccination, or being tested or treated for the illness, are not subjected to checks on their immigration status.
A government spokeswoman said: “Coronavirus vaccines will be offered to everyone living in the UK free of charge, regardless of immigration status.
“Those registered with a GP are being contacted at the earliest opportunity and we are working closely with partners and external organisations to contact those who are not registered with a GP to ensure they are also offered the vaccine.”
Bella Sankey, director of charity Detention Action, said: “It is essential for all our health that everyone is able to access vaccines easily and without fear of punishment.
“But this will only work if the Home Office immediately legislates to end all data sharing with doctors, hospitals and healthcare providers. Without this guarantee, mistrust will prevent vaccine uptake, which will harm us all.”