UK health authorities and civil servants repeatedly warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government about the potential for an infectious disease outbreak on board a vessel holding asylum seekers, people familiar with the matter said.
(Bloomberg) — UK health authorities and civil servants repeatedly warned Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government about the potential for an infectious disease outbreak on board a vessel holding asylum seekers, people familiar with the matter said.
The warnings were given before the British government last week moved the first 39 asylum seekers into the Bibby Stockholm barge moored off the south coast of England — only to be forced to evacuate within days after traces of the Legionella bacteria were detected, according to the people, who requested anonymity discussing internal advice.
The Home Office said in a statement that it had worked with the UK Health Security Agency to “ensure appropriate health and safety arrangements are in place.”
Tests for the bacteria were carried out before the migrants were moved to the barge, but the results were only communicated to ministers afterward, Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters on Monday. He said the tests were “precautionary” and there was no requirement to wait for the results before allowing people to move into the accommodation.
The incident is an embarrassment for Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who are struggling to deliver on a pledge he made to “stop the boats” full of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel from France, one of five key promises he made to voters in January. His government has sought to project the threat of being put on a vessel as a deterrent to future arrivals.
The policy of housing asylum seekers on barges was previously rejected by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s home secretary, Priti Patel, as too expensive, an insufficient deterrent and a risk to the health of the occupants.
Officials at the Home Office advised ministers on several occasions that putting migrants on ships or barges would mean a risk of them contracting infectious diseases, according to people familiar with the matter. The officials were concerned that the department could be sued by asylum seekers if they became ill while living in government accommodation.
“Vessels have been used safely and successfully by Scottish and Dutch governments” recently, the Home Office said. “We will continue to follow all health advice when using the barge and other sites to house asylum seekers.”
Their concerns centered on the heightened risk of keeping people in confined spaces at sea, something which the Covid pandemic had shown to increase the chances of infection, the people said. They were also worried about the dangers to the asylum seekers themselves as they tend to have poorer health outcomes, especially in the wake of various scabies breakouts at other migrant housing facilities, they added.
The UKHSA had advised the Home Office on a range of health protection issues on board the Bibby Stockholm prior to it coming into use, one of the people said.
Infectious diseases were one of the risks flagged, and the UKHSA had agreed with the Home Office that it should be allowed to inspect the vessel once the migrants were on board, to ensure it complied with health and safety guidance on infectious diseases. The Home Office is responsible for the health of migrants in its care, the person said.
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