Asylum seekers in barracks ‘blocked from GP access’ due to ‘gatekeeping’ by Home Office contractors

Fresh concerns over lack of healthcare for refugees in military camps as data shows ambulance call-outs made every two days at Napier Barracks

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 03 February 2021 21:51 GMT
<p>Asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent have protested in recent weeks about the conditions</p>

Asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent have protested in recent weeks about the conditions

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Unwell asylum seekers living in former military camps are being blocked from accessing GPs because of “gatekeeping” by Home Office-contracted staff running the sites, doctors and lawyers warn.

Concerns have been mounting about conditions at two Ministry of Defence sites – known as Napier Barracks, in Kent, and Penally Barracks, in Pembrokeshire – since they were repurposed last September for housing asylum seekers.

Doctors from charities supporting residents of the camps said people’s health conditions were worsening because non-medical staff at the barracks – employed by Home Office contractor Clearsprings Ready Homes – were making their own assessment on whether people presenting with medical problems should be referred to a GP.

In some cases, staff have decided that the symptoms described were not sufficiently serious enough for the individual to be given an appointment, leading residents without treatment for weeks, according to lawyers representing people in the barracks.

The Home Office said it was fulfilling its statutory obligations and that all asylum seekers at the camps were registered with a GP. It said Clearsprings Ready Homes does not triage on behalf of the NHS but rather assists with contacting health providers.

The Helen Bamber Foundation told of one case where a survivor of abuse at Penally Barracks had suffered a severe one-sided headache for several days and was identified by the charity as being in need of urgent medical assessment, but camp staff had wrongly categorised his presentation as “non-serious”.

Jennifer Blair, co-head of legal protection at the Helen Bamber Foundation, said: “Non-medical staff are triaging medical issues, and it feels like medical issues are being systematically downplayed. The use of clinically untrained personnel as gatekeepers and, effectively, as de facto GP receptionists is a breach of the residents’ right to confidentiality.”

Medical charities have warned of increased pressure on the NHS due to increased ambulance call-outs as a result both of physical and mental health needs being left to worsen without treatment. 

Figures obtained by The Independent show that in October 2020, there were 19 ambulance call-outs to Napier Barracks, where about 400 people were being held at the time.

Anna Miller, head of policy and advocacy at Doctors of the World UK, said the reported lack of access to healthcare “could undermine the Covid-19 vaccination programme”.

“GPs are also experienced at managing everyday healthcare needs in the community and relieving pressure on the rest of the NHS. When people aren’t registered with a GP, A&E visits, hospital admissions and ambulance call-outs all increase – and that’s exactly what we are seeing in the barracks.”

A report in November by the local health board in Wales reveals that it was given just two days to prepare medical provision for about 200 people arriving at Penally, many of whom are said to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, having fled conflict or persecution.

"Consultation would have immediately made it clear that the Penally site is unsuitable accommodation, particularly for men who may have experienced trauma, great hardship and who have been separated from their families,” the report states.

When approached by The Independent this week, Hywel Dda University Health Board said that despite it raising “significant concerns” when informed about the plans, the Home Office continued to follow through with them.

Medical charities said the local health board in Folkestone was also given approximately two days’ notice before asylum seekers were transferred to Napier Barracks.

Tom Nunn, of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who is representing a number of asylum seekers in the Penally camp, said many of them had been required to describe “extremely intimate” health problems to non-medical staff working in the camp, sometimes through another resident acting as an interpreter because of language issues, in order to “persuade” them that they should be allowed to access medical treatment.  

“On a number of occasions, the onsite staff have made their own assessment and decided that the symptoms described are not sufficiently serious enough for the individual to have said appointment, leading to that individual going for weeks without treatment,” he said.

One asylum seeker, who was in Napier Barracks but was recently transferred to a hotel following the Covid outbreak at the site, told The Independent he had tried to see a GP because he was coughing up blood, but was referred between staff in the camp.

The man, who did not wish to be named, said: “In the camp they play with us and send us from one person to another: the manager, to the supervisors, to the nurse. The nurse always said they would get me medicine, but that was just talk.”

Professor Cornelius Katona, medical director at the Helen Bamber Foundation, said a lack of mental health support meant underlying trauma-related problems were not being addressed, and that residents’ mental health had subsequently worsened.  

He said evidence showed the situation was “inhuman and degrading”, adding: “Leaving people locked in a place where they are at high risk of catching a potentially fatal illness, and where they don’t even have proper access to heating and water, is akin to torture.”

The warnings follow a Covid-19 outbreak at Napier Barracks last month, which saw more than 120 residents infected with the virus. 

Medical charities had previously warned that the site was not Covid-secure, and the local health board in Wales told The Independent it had “continually raised concerns about Covid-19 security at the camp and the inadequate isolation facilities and [had] not received detailed assurance from the Home Office”.

The immigration compliance minister, Chris Philp, said: “All asylum seekers accommodated at these sites have full and free access to healthcare – each individual is registered with a GP and there is a nurse on each site to assess immediate medical needs. 

“We are meeting our statutory duty to provide asylum seekers, who would have otherwise been destitute, with safe and secure accommodation, along with three nutritious meals a day, all of which is paid for by the taxpayer.”

A Home Office spokesperson said that all asylum seekers who had tested positive at Napier Barracks or had been in close contact with those who have the virus were being made to self-isolate, and that a number were being temporarily moved into self-isolation facilities to allow others to self-isolate more easily.

Clearsprings Ready Homes have not responded to a request for comment. 

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