When Pauline Pennant, 70, and her 80-year-old husband, Basil, visited London for their nephew’s wedding three years ago, it was supposed to be the happiest occasion. Instead it was the start of an ongoing nightmare.
Pennant, a former nurse, became seriously ill and was admitted to Croydon University hospital on 25 August 2015. She received the worst news: a CT scan had found secondary bone cancer. The doctor advised her to see an orthopaedic oncologist and referred her for further tests to find the primary cancer.
“That was when they started to pursue me for money,” she said. As she lay on her hospital bed absorbing the devastating news, Pennant was quizzed about her status in the UK.
It was the beginning of her descent into a Kafkaesque world that has become familiar over recent months as the Guardian has revealed the scale of the effects of Britain’s “hostile environment” immigration policy on the Windrush generation.
Pennant told them the truth: she was a British citizen with a UK passport and had retired to Jamaica in 1993 to care for her parents, after 30 years working in Britain – mostly for the NHS. She did not have a GP because she saw no need for one. But none of it mattered, and she was handed a bill for £4,388.
“I was told quite clearly from the doctor that this [cancer] is what is taking place, I need to have this test done. And the sister of the ward said you won’t be able to have any more tests until you pay,” she said.
“The chief finance officer came round and said this is what I owe and I need to pay it and they won’t be able to continue to give me any treatment. I was warned that if I didn’t then I would be blocked from coming back to the UK. It’s like a death sentence.”
The law changed in April 2015 – three months before Pennant’s cancer diagnosis – so that overseas visitors would be charged for NHS healthcare. Despite being a British citizen and still paying UK taxes through her state pension, Pennant’s retirement to #Jamaica means she is no longer entitled to free NHS healthcare. She appealed to the hospital’s patient advice and liaison service (Pals) but heard nothing back.