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Bibby Stockholm migrants moved off barge after legionella bacteria found

Asylum seekers were not told of bacteria in water system until after media reports broke

Lizzie Dearden,Jane Dalton
Friday 11 August 2023 19:07 BST
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Inside the Bibby Stockholm asylum barge

All asylum seekers and staff are being moved off the Bibby Stockholm barge after the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease was discovered in its water supply.

The Independent understands the 39 migrants are being moved together to a hotel, further hampering the prime minister’s pledge to reduce hotel costs in favour of “alternative accommodation” on vessels and military bases.

The Home Office said the evacuation was a “precautionary measure” and that it hoped to put people back on board as soon as possible, but did not put a timescale on the checks at Portland Port in Dorset.

The bacteria was discovered in a water sample taken on 25 July, but the test results were not sent to private contractors until 7 August - the day asylum seekers were moved on board.

The government was not informed until Wednesday, and on Thursday evening, official advice was received from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to take some migrants off the Bibby Stockholm. The Home Office decided to empty it while further tests are carried out.

The move was announced to the press on Friday before asylum seekers on the barge were told about the discovery of legionella or moved, The Independent understands.

Charity workers said people they contacted following news reports of the contamination had not been issued with any safety precautions over using water on the barge.

The Home Office had previously tried to put disabled people, those with chronic illnesses and torture victims on the barge, in violation of its own guidance.

Official letters issued to residents later on Friday afternoon read: “We are writing to inform you that it is necessary to temporarily relocate you from the Bibby Stockholm as a precautionary health and safety measure.

“Corporate Travel Management (CTM), who operate the Bibby Stockholm, have sourced alternative accommodation and will provide transport to take you to that accommodation. “They will also arrange for you to have a health check prior to disembarkation with the medical staff onboard. There will be additional healthcare provision at the hotel, should you require it.”

Only 39 people had boarded the barge in four days of operation (AFP via Getty Images)

The letter listed the symptoms of Legionnaires' disease, calling it “a rare but potentially serious illness” that spreads through droplets of water when inhaled in aerosol form.

“The Home Office is working with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and other national and local partners in public health protection to prevent ongoing exposure to legionella on the vessel and ensuring any necessary action is taken,” it added.

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock branded the situation “a complete and utter shambles, a catalogue of catastrophe”.

He said ministers should “hang their heads in shame” as the barge was becoming a public-relations disaster for them, just four days after the first migrants moved on.

The government hopes to house up to 500 men on the controversial accommodation, which had already been hit by a succession of delays and safety concerns.

Only 15 people out of the 50 originally planned were moved on Monday, following a wave of legal letters challenging transfer notices over mental and physical health issues.

(Getty Images)

The Home Office dropped attempts to move more than 20 people, but threatened other asylum seekers with the withdrawal of housing and financial support.

Most of those selected for the barge are 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, and should focus on the real job at hand - processing the asylum claims swiftly, so refugees may become contributing members of our communities as they so strongly wish.”

A view of the en-suite bathroom in one of the Bibby Stockholm’s 222 cabins (AP)

The government claimed the Bibby Stockholm would be cheaper than hotels, and “deter” Channel crossings, but 755 people arrived on Thursday in a new high for 2023.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The health and welfare of individuals on the vessel is our utmost priority.

“Environmental samples from the water system on the Bibby Stockholm have shown levels of legionella bacteria, which require further investigation.

“Following these results, the Home Office has been working closely with UKHSA [the UK Health Security Agency] and following its advice in line with long-established public health processes, and ensuring all protocol from Dorset Council’s environmental health team and Dorset NHS is adhered to.

“As a precautionary measure, all 39 asylum-seekers who arrived on the vessel this week are being disembarked while further assessments are undertaken.”

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