Napier Barracks staff feared asylum seekers might die from Covid | Immigration and asylum

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Staff at Home Office barracks accommodation feared that some asylum seekers placed there might die during the mass Covid outbreak earlier this year, the Guardian has learned.

Meeting notes released following a freedom of information request to Kent county council reveal that public health officials and those working at the barracks were concerned about asylum seekers with serious health conditions such as leukaemia, tuberculosis, hepatitis C, liver or kidney disease and malnutrition as well as those who had survived torture, had PTSD, were on hunger strike or had been put on suicide watch.

Officials at meetings were concerned that while some serious health conditions were known about there were asylum seekers at Napier with undiagnosed conditions as they had not been given proper health screenings.

Staff did not know exactly who among the 400 placed at the barracks by the Home Office were clinically vulnerable or extremely vulnerable and so could be most severely affected by Covid. This led to panic and confusion among Napier staff when 197 cases of Covid were confirmed in January and February this year.

Kent county council confirmed to the Guardian that officials were so concerned about the welfare of the asylum seekers at Napier that it launched a section 42 safeguarding inquiry, something it has a duty to do if it believes adults with care and support needs are experiencing abuse or neglect. The inquiry has now closed.

In the notes, staff say repeatedly that barracks accommodation is unsuitable during a pandemic and that they do not believe the accommodation can be made safe.

Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the home affairs select committee, described the revelations as “damning”.

“Once Covid started to spread it was chaotic with none of the management agencies having any kind of grip on what was going on and what support people needed,” she said. Vulnerable people were left ‘terrified in their beds’. The department should be ashamed.”

The notes from a meeting on 20 January 2021, a day when a cumulative total of 129 asylum seekers had tested positive for Covid, along with 10 staff, state: “A decision needs to be made about clinically vulnerable as they may die or [become] very unwell if they catch Covid.”

It adds: “This was inevitable. The number of different contractors and no responsibility or accountability and fragmentation where things fall through the net. Nowhere on site is Covid secure.”

The notes of 21 January paint a bleak picture: “A lot of sick people coughing and food containers lying around. Conditions are not good. Feeling on camp is tense. People are terrified in their beds.”

In evidence to the select committee in February, the home secretary put some of the blame for the mass Covid outbreak on the asylum seekers themselves for “mingling” in their 14-bed dormitories. Yet the notes state repeatedly that social distancing at the barracks is not possible.

“A lot of anger [among asylum seekers] at being blamed and they can’t isolate and so resent being blamed for that,” the documents state.

After a small number of asylum seekers started fires at Napier, the notes say that the incident was triggered by distress among the asylum seekers after receiving letters from the Home Office saying they may not be moved out of the accommodation for weeks.

“Letter about the cohorting and self-isolation seems to have sparked this incident. If five to 10 people are being dispersed a week that’s a long time to wait,” the documents say.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “During the height of an unprecedented health pandemic, to ensure asylum seekers were not left destitute, additional accommodation was required at extremely short notice. We make no apology for providing people a secure place to stay. These sites are a temporary measure to ease pressure on the system during these unprecedented times and reduce our reliance on hotels. Significant improvements have been made to the site, including improved accommodation and more outdoor and recreational activities.”

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