Asylum seekers evacuated from the Bibby Stockholm barge following the discovery of dangerous Legionella bacteria have been told they won’t be moved back on for weeks, The Independent can reveal.
All residents and staff were moved off the vessel in Portland Port on Friday, four days after tests of its water system raised the alarm,
Rishi Sunak has committed to putting people back on the barge, and using others, as part of his plans for “alternative accommodation” to cut the £6m-a-day cost of asylum hotels.
On Tuesday, health minister Will Quince said the government hoped the Bibby Stockholm would be occupied again “in the next few days”, calling potentially fatal Legionella “a teething issue”.
But The Independent understands that it will take weeks for the required work to be carried out, with the barge’s water system being completely “flushed” and retested.
Official guidance from the Health and Safety Executive states that where high levels of Legionella are found: “The system should be resampled and an immediate review of the control measures and risk assessment carried out to identify any remedial actions, including possible disinfection of the system.
“Retesting should take place a few days after disinfection and at frequent intervals afterwards until a satisfactory level of control is achieved.”
Costs are rising as the removed asylum seekers remain under health supervision in a hotel, where some have been told they will remain for up to five weeks.
Questions over why people were moved onto the Bibby Stockholm before test results for Legionella were received following water sampling on 25 July have not been addressed.
The Home Office and its contractors have refused to answer The Independent’s questions on why residents were not given any safety advice regarding the water, and had not been informed of the issue at the point media statements were released on Friday.
Dorset Council said test results were given to government contractors Corporate Travel Management (CTM) and Landry and Kling on 7 August – the same day the first migrants were moved on board.
It said a Home Office official was “verbally informed” of the Legionella test results at a meeting on 8 August, but Downing Street has claimed that ministers were not made aware at that point.
An “incident management meeting” on Thursday concluded that no one else would be moved onto the Bibby Stockholm while a risk assessment was carried out, and the Home Office then decided to move all 39 asylum seekers off the barge.
Stephen Kinnock, Labour’s shadow immigration minister, said: “Every new revelation about this scandal raises further questions about how much the government knew about the risk or actual presence of Legionella when they chose to press ahead with sending asylum-seekers on to that barge.
“It’s clear that ministers were so focused on getting people on to the barge during their catastrophic ‘Small Boats Week’ that they cut corners.”
The prime minister has continued to argue that the vessel and military bases are a cheaper solution to housing asylum seekers than hotels, despite a series of setbacks including tuberculosis cases at RAF Wethersfield and delays for safety checks at RAF Scampton.
On Tuesday, Mr Sunak swerved a question about whether he was personally warned about potential health risks for asylum seekers on board the Bibby Stockholm, telling journalists: “What has happened here is it is right that we go through all the checks and procedures to ensure the wellbeing and health of the people being housed on the barge.”
He said he remained “committed” to the barge and to “stopping the boats”, although numbers are climbing in calm weather.
The government hopes to house up to 500 men on the controversial barge, which had already been hit by a succession of delays and safety concerns.
Only 15 of the 50 people originally planned to board moved on last Monday, following a wave of legal letters challenging transfer notices over mental and physical health issues.
The Home Office dropped attempts to move more than 20 people who contested being moved on board, but threatened other asylum seekers with the withdrawal of housing and financial support.
Most of those selected for the barge were not small boat migrants, and claimed asylum after flying to the UK legally, The Independent revealed.
Charity Care4Calais, which supports migrants, said ministers should now realise that keeping refugees on barges was “untenable”.
Chief executive Steve Smith added: “We have always known our concerns over the health and safety of the barge are justified, and this latest mismanagement proves our point.
“The Bibby Stockholm is a visual illustration of this government’s hostile environment against refugees, but it has also fast become a symbol for the shambolic incompetence which has broken Britain’s asylum system.
“The government should now realise warehousing refugees in this manner is completely untenable.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The health and welfare of asylum seekers remains of the utmost priority. All asylum seekers accommodated on the Bibby Stockholm have been disembarked as a precaution and moved to alternative accommodation.
“The Home Office and our contractors are following all protocol and advice from Dorset Council’s Environmental Health team, UK Health Security Agency and Dorset NHS who we are working closely with.”
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