On Saturday I asked a friend of mine who lives in Walsall whether he had been vaccinated yet. He replied that he had not, because he is an illegal immigrant, which I had forgotten. He has been here for seven years now, and I know him from before that in Nigeria. After some online research, I called him back and asked him if he knew that the government had announced that illegal immigrants could receive the vaccine through registering with a G.P., with no details asked. He said he did not have a G.P. and certainly would not be providing the state with all the information needed to register.
That chimed with me, because eighteen months ago when we moved to a different part of Edinburgh we had to change G.P., and I was horrified by the process. We had to produce passports and proof of address. Why a G.P. practice needs to see your passport is something I completely fail to understand, unless it is indeed a form of immigration check. The doctor’s job is to make you well, not to check you are using your real name. It is of course also difficult to provide proof of address immediately after moving, for obvious reasons. We had a period where I could prove with a utility bill that I live here, but that was not acceptable as proof that my wife and daughter lived with me.
I cannot tell you how much I detest all this. There has been a fundamentally authoritarian swing in society and I detest the way that so many people simply accept it. The system used to run on trust and honesty. For most of my life, if you walked into a GP’s office to register yourself and your family, you would just fill in the forms and get registered. The assumption was that you were telling the truth, barring any indication otherwise. Society has changed so the default, the presumption, is that you are lying unless you can prove otherwise. This is an appalling and fundamental societal shift that people have simply accepted.
If I tell a doctor that I have moved into a certain house, I expect that doctor to believe me. If I tell them my wife and daughter live with me, I expect them to believe that too. Why on earth should I have to prove it to get medical treatment? If I tell them I am a giraffe, certainly they may doubt.
This presumption you are dishonest is most marked in the field of money. It is almost impossible to make any financial transaction of any size, without proving positively you are not a money launderer or drug trafficker. Again, the presumption is of guilt until you can prove otherwise. If you wish to withdraw any significant sum of your own money in cash, a bank will even require to know what you intend then to do – with your own money. You cannot put money into a business without proving the origins of that money. The degree of intrusiveness is simply enormous, the realms of the state have expanded exponentially, the integrity of the citizen is officially disbelieved at all times. All of which is deployed almost exclusively against the little people.
I believe that a system which assumes that everybody is a rogue and a liar, that nobody’s word is trustworthy, leads to a situation where the important societal norms of trust and honesty are so officially disrespected, that these good behaviours start indeed to disappear through discouragement.
I should make plain I am not against the policing of crime; quite the opposite. Laws should be well enforced against those who are not honest, that is important reinforcement. But that is very different from the assumption that nobody is honest, and regulatory control of simple, everyday social and economic transactions on the basis of zero trust.
All that brings in a truly authoritarian state.
So I am not surprised my friend does not want to register with the G.P. to get vaccinated. It brings a host of intrusive questions, and Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policies, which aim to turn everybody with whom an immigrant has dealings – landlords, employers, banks etc. – into a government informant, has destroyed any feeling of security in dealing with authority in the immigrant population.
Nobody knows how many illegal immigrants there are in the United Kingdom. An estimate of 1.3 million people was used at the time it was announced they could apply for Covid vaccines. I believe that may be a severe underestimate. 22 years ago when working in the FCO I paid an official visit to a Thames Water sewerage works (it’s a glamorous life in the diplomatic service) at a time when Thames Water were looking for a big contract in Accra. We were discussing the fact that nobody truly knows the population of Accra, and I was told the same is true of London. The volume of sewage in some parts of London (Newham, Tower Hamlets) showed that the actual population was approaching twice the official population.
London in particular would simply grind to a halt without the illegal immigrants who keep its services and infrastructure going. Boris Johnson recognised this as Mayor of London, and in a quickly buried moment of sanity called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants.
For what it is worth, I think Johnson is an intelligent man, capable of a wide and sensible understanding of real problems and solutions, but that he has no interest in pursuing these at all. He subordinates any ideas for the public good, to ideas that will bring him personal power and wealth. When you think about it, that is a special, higher grade of calculating evil.
In fact, an amnesty for illegal immigrants is precisely what is needed for the sake of society in general. Society deplores illegal immigrants while being highly dependent on their labour. Their position outside of formal institutions is fertile ground for crime and exploitation. an amnesty will bring millions of people within the formal economy and able to pay tax. The Covid crisis should be used to give the political cover required – the alternative is to have pools of Covid continuing to exist within highly concentrated communities living in dense populations, waiting to mutate and break out again.
Immigration amnesty as a response to the pandemic should be a no-brainer, bringing those living amongst us into a position of human dignity in the state and able to enjoy its protections. It would be great to see some good emerge from this crisis.
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