The Government’s counter-extremism strategy could threaten the trust and confidentiality between doctors and their patients, a public health leader has warned.
Professor John Middleton, president of the Faculty of Public Health, said the Prevent strategy, which calls for medics to tell the authorities of anyone they believe is at risk of being drawn into terrorism, is a flawed way to tackle homegrown terrorism.
He said it could breed mistrust and create a “serious public health problem”, particularly among Muslim communities.
Prof Middleton said the level of concern or evidence required for a health professional to act is much lower than that normally needed to override the common law duty of confidentiality.
He wrote in The Lancet: “Prevent risks undermining the trust that patients have in health professionals. Distrust will be generated not only with respect to the patient whose confidentiality is breached, but also with respect to the larger community which the professional services.”
He continued: “Such an approach is likely to discourage patients from providing relevant information to doctors and to deter them from accessing health care.
Prevent risks undermining the trust that patients have in health professionals.Professor John Middleton
“Prevent risks creating a serious public health problem, particularly with respect to Muslim communities which are already disadvantaged by higher rates of reported ill-health and poverty as compared to other religious groups in the UK.”
He urged officials to look at issues such as education and job opportunities. “Rather than a top-down approach that opportunistically targets particular communities for combating terrorism, we need to address the problems that communities themselves say they are experiencing at a local level.”
The claims by Professor Middleton are the latest criticism of Prevent, which was launched in 2003 as one of the three strands of the Government’s post 9/11 counter-terrorism strategy.
Earlier this month, a study by the Open Society Justice Initiative described the policy as badly flawed, potentially counter-productive and at risk of trampling on the basic rights of young Muslims.
The US-based organisation studied 17 cases in which individuals had apparently fallen foul of the Prevent programme, including instances in which information was apparently gathered from Muslim primary school children without their parents’ consent.
In July, another non-governmental organisation, Rights Watch UK, concluded that the programme stifles free speech.
A Government spokesman said: “There is a very serious and real threat from radicalisation in the UK, and the public rightly expects that the professionals most responsible for safeguarding vulnerable people play their part in protecting those most at risk.
“The standards for disclosing confidential information about patients in relation to Prevent are at the same stringent level as for other forms of safeguarding such as child sexual exploitation.
“People referred under Prevent are absolutely not considered or treated as criminals. The strategy is about spotting early signs that someone is vulnerable and providing support to make them more resilient to grooming by terrorist recruiters.”
Concerns were raised about the radicalisation of vulnerable people in West Yorkshire last year after two high-profile cases linked with so-called Islamic State.
Bradford sisters Khadija Dawood, Sugra Dawood and Zohra Dawood and their children, aged between three and 15, were feared to have travelled to Syria link up with the terror group in June.
Days earlier, Dewsbury teenager Talha Asmal blew himself up in Iraq, becoming Britain’s youngest suicide bomber, after travelling to Turkey earlier in the year with his fellow Dewsbury 17-year-old Hassan Munshi.
Last August, it was revealed that more than a dozen children aged 11 or younger in Yorkshire and the North East were deemed as being at risk of radicalisation by extremist groups in the previous year. Statistics obtained by The Yorkshire Post revealed that 247 people from the two areas were referred to the Government’s anti-radicalisation programme, Channel, which is part of the Prevent programme, in the year to April 2015.