The Home Office will not reduce the number of asylum seekers per dormitory at a controversial military barracks despite a major coronavirus outbreak that took place at the camp earlier this year, documents show.
Napier Barracks, in Kent, is currently housing 45 people but new residents are due to be moved there in the coming weeks. The Home Office has been using the site as asylum accommodation for six months, and plans to continue to do so until September.
A “management plan” for the continued use of the site by Home Office contractor Clearsprings, which manages the camp, states that as of 17 March it can hold 28 residents in each dormitory, and that they can be “socially distanced” in these conditions.
This follows a major Covid outbreak at the camp in January, when the same number of residents were held in each dorm. Nearly 200 people were infected, and residents were not allowed to leave their dormitories and were physically prevented from leaving the site.
A report by Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) on 20 January stated that there were “too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection”.
Separately, an assessment of the site by the government’s immigration watchdog last month found that opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier had not complied with official health and safety guidance and that a large-scale outbreak had been “virtually inevitable”.
Bridget Chapman, of the Kent Refugee Action Network, said it was “horrific” that vulnerable asylum seekers would be again “packed into entirely inappropriate communal living situations against the advice of PHE”.
She added: “The use of the phrase ‘socially distanced’ here is derisory. You cannot socially distance when you are being housed in a room with 27 other people and you're all sharing the same air.”
The “management plan” states that asylum seekers will be required to self-isolate if they were in a “household” with someone who had tested positive, which it said would qualify as sleeping in “the same room or dormitory”.
It said the decision to place 28 residents in each dormitory was “subject to revision”.
The document was disclosed to the Home Affairs Select Committee in a response from home secretary Priti Patel. In the letter, she said residents in Napier Barracks were currently housed in blocks of four to 10 people, but that this was “subject to change as people move through the sites”.
“We are working with our provider, health agencies and other local stakeholders to improve the operation of the site,” she added.
In the same letter, Ms Patel confirmed that the Home Office was “continuing to explore the possibility” of using a site on Ministry of Defence land in Barton Stacey, Hampshire.
These plans have been described by former immigration minister Caroline Nokes, who is local MP for the area, as “deeply worrying”.
Ms Chapman said the government should prioritise “more suitable accommodation” rather than “spending time and money on creating any more camps”.
“[Asylum seekers] need to be housed in community settings where they are able to access the services and support that they need. We are retraumatising vulnerable people needlessly and it has to stop,” she added.
Clearsprings declined to comment and said the Home Office would be better placed to respond.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We secured permission to use Napier barracks for 12 months and while pressure on the asylum system remains will continue to make use of the site.”
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