NHS warned Home Office social distancing ‘impossible’ at Napier Barracks during Covid outbreak, report reveals

Exclusive: Priti Patel blamed ‘mingling’ asylum seekers for spread of coronavirus on military site despite health assessment stating there were ‘too many housed in each block to prevent infection spread’

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 04 March 2021 11:55 GMT
CCG report exposes a damning series of failings by ministers and contracted firms to prevent and control a Covid outbreak among residents, which saw nearly 200 people infected
CCG report exposes a damning series of failings by ministers and contracted firms to prevent and control a Covid outbreak among residents, which saw nearly 200 people infected (Getty Images)

An NHS body warned it was impossible for asylum seekers to social-distance at Napier Barracks as coronavirus spread through the camp earlier this year, but the Home Office still refused to move them out of the controversial housing, The Independent can reveal.

An unpublished assessment by Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) of the military site, which was repurposed to house asylum seekers in September, exposes a damning series of failings by ministers and contracted firms to prevent and control a Covid outbreak among residents, which saw nearly 200 people infected.

The CCG document, seen by The Independent, states that there were “too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection”.

But Priti Patel, the home secretary, has instead repeatedly suggested the asylum seekers themselves were to blame for the spread, accusing them of “mingling” as recently as last week.

The shadow immigration minister said the revelations showed that the decision to place people in the barracks was “not only devoid of any compassion, but dangerous”, while the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee said the “truly shocking” findings showed the conditions in Napier Barracks were “even worse than we had been led to believe”.

The Home Office has faced mounting criticism over conditions in the Kent camp since around 400 asylum-seeking men between the ages of 19 and 60 were placed there six months ago.

They were required to sleep in dormitories of up to 28 people, with only plywood dividers or sheets between beds and shared bathroom facilities.

In mid-January, residents were informed that they were no longer permitted to leave the site because “someone you live with may have Covid-19 symptoms”.

The CCG report shows that several days after the letter was sent, 128 residents and nine staff members had tested positive, and that there was at least one positive case in each of the 16 dormitory-style blocks.

It reveals that there were a number of clinically vulnerable individuals on the camp – suffering from conditions such as leukaemia and TB – who were “at greater risk” from Covid, and that at least one ambulance had already been called for a man with worsening symptoms.

Advice from Public Health England (PHE) was to “cohort positive residents and negative residents”, according to the CCG assessment. However, people who did not have Covid were required to sleep in dormitories with those who had tested positive.

The report raises alarm about the way the outbreak was being managed, stating that there were a number of different contractors covering varying functions on site and that there was “no clarity” who had overall responsibly and accountability, risking “some things being missed”.

Napier Barracks is managed by Home Office contractor Clearsprings, which sub-contracts on-site administration to a company called NACCS and the cleaning and catering to ESS.

Ms Patel and immigration minister Chris Philp have repeatedly claimed the barracks offer a good standard of housing, describing it as an “insult to say they are not good enough for asylum seekers” because they previously accommodated “our brave soldiers”.

However, the CCG states that the barracks were “not built to house people on a long-term basis, they were built to facilitate the military when they are on exercise for short periods of time”.

Shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch, who obtained the report via a freedom of information request, said the assessment made it “crystal clear” that Napier Barracks was “dangerous” for those staying there, the staff and the wider community.

“This was a political choice and the home secretary now urgently needs to answer questions on this shameful scandal,” she added.

Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “Even before this assessment was done, it should have been obvious to [the Home Office] that Covid would spread swiftly in these conditions and the outbreak confirmed that.

“The Home Office needs to now publish the advice they took before putting people into these extremely unsafe conditions and we need to know urgently what they have done since receiving this report to end all unsafe arrangements.”

In a series of recommendations, the CCG said a multi-agency risk assessment should be undertaken to understand the risk of moving people off the site and information leaflets in a variety of languages should be provided to residents giving clear information about Covid-19.

The Home Office told The Independent it had worked with CCG and Clearsprings to “address the points raised” and worked with PHE to follow medical advice, including moving people from the site so they could self-isolate.

It did not confirm whether a risk assessment was carried out or whether information was provided in different languages.

Most residents remained in the Napier Barracks until several weeks ago, when they started to be moved to hotels. Around 60 people are currently believed to be in the camp.

However, the Home Office has confirmed to The Independent that it intends to continue using the site, and there are reports that it plans to place new residents at the site within weeks.

Phil Murwill, head of services at Doctors of the World UK, said the “damning” assessment confirmed that any infection prevention and control measures in place at the camp were “completely inadequate”.

The charity warned the Home Office that there was a lack of compliance with Covid-19 regulations on the site as far back as November – but its warnings were ignored.

“I think it’s safe to say the barracks have been mismanaged from the start and should never have been used as asylum accommodation, especially during a pandemic,” Mr Murwill said.

Stephen Hale, chief executive at Refugee Action, said it was “scandalous” that the government “knowingly put the lives of clinically vulnerable refugees at risk by cramming them into decrepit barracks”.

He added: “What makes it worse is ministers repeatedly blamed this terrifying outbreak on the victims. The Home Office must close the barracks, shelve any plans for warehouse-style accommodation, and house people in quality homes in our communities.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Despite our best efforts a number of those accommodated at Napier tested positive for coronavirus earlier this year.

“There is currently no one accommodated at Napier who is Covid positive and we hope, shortly, that the outbreak will be declared over.” 

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