Barracks housing migrants must be ‘evacuated immediately’ after Covid-19 cases

Flora Thompson, PA Home Affairs Correspondent

A former army barracks housing asylum seekers should be “evacuated immediately” amid ongoing concerns over a coronavirus outbreak, MPs were told.

Dr Jill O’Leary, the leading GP for charity the Helen Bamber Foundation’s medical advisory service, said the outbreak at Napier Barracks in Kent was “extremely concerning”.

Last week, 120 out of 390 asylum seekers at the site had tested positive and while around 100 had since been moved from the barracks to alternative accommodation in order to self-isolate, the problems remained, she warned.

Speaking to the Commons Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday, she said: “As we speak today there are still many people who have tested positive for Covid-19 who are sharing close quarters with people who are not currently unwell with Covid.”

She added: “The barracks needs to be evacuated immediately for the safety of all concerned.”

Neither Napier or Penally barracks, which is also being used for similar purposes in Wales, were “Covid-19 compliant”, she claimed as she described using such sites in this manner during a pandemic as “unacceptable”.

She said: “We are aware that numerous people have been transferred into the barracks from around the country – from local authority areas where there have been high rates of infection.”

She said people were moved at “very short notice and not given the opportunity to self-isolate before sharing dorms with up to 28 other people in them”.

The canteen and washing facilities are communal, making social distancing and hygiene measures “virtually impossible”, Ms O’Leary added.

People seeking asylum – Napier Barracks
The Home Office resorted to using the Ministry of Defence-owned Napier Barracks as it struggled to house asylum seekers (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Testing was “intermittent” and the conditions placed staff and asylum seekers at an “unacceptable risk”, while also having “huge implications” for the safety for the surrounding area, she said.

The Home Office – which turned to using the Ministry of Defence-owned site last year to house asylum seekers – told the committee the accommodation is Covid-secure.

But Ms O’Leary replied: “I can confidently say that they are not Covid-19 compliant and the very existence of the outbreak in Napier would serve to contradict that statement.”

Some of those “stuck in this accommodation” are “very frightened and very sick”, she warned.

Doctors and lawyers from organisations including the Helen Bamber Foundation, Doctors of the World and Freedom from Torture, wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel and Health Secretary Matt Hancock in November setting out “grave concerns about the possibility, in fact the inevitability, of a covid-19 outbreak in one of these sites”, Ms O’Leary said, adding: “Sadly we were ignored and our worst fears have come true now.”

Asked if she was surprised the outbreak occurred given the reported conditions, Ms O’Leary said “not in the slightest”, adding that it was “absolutely” predictable.

Committee chairman Yvette Cooper said: “This is truly shocking, I mean it’s just very troubling information that you are giving us.”

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