Covid outbreak at Kent barracks housing asylum seekers saw nearly 200 cases

Sean Morrison
·4-min read
 Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, which is currently being used by the government to house people seeking asylum in the UK (PA)
Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, which is currently being used by the government to house people seeking asylum in the UK (PA)

Almost 200 people tested positive for coronavirus during an outbreak at a military barracks housing asylum seekers in Kent.

The number of cases at Napier Barracks since the beginning of the year has now been confirmed to MPs by senior Home Office officials, and is far higher than initially reported.

It comes as a doctor accused the department of “moral failure” over the continued use of the ageing and virus-hit site to accommodate asylum seekers awaiting decisions on their claims.

Home Office Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft told the Commons Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday there had been 178 positive tests in January and 19 in February.

There were dormitories which could house 28 people and in total there were now 61 people in the barracks after several were moved out, he said.

The Committe’s chairman Yvette Cooper responded: “Oh my God. You had 178 cases at a centre which had dormitory accommodation of over 20 people in those dormitories.

“That looks like pretty clear evidence to me that those dormitories were not Covid-safe if you managed to generate within them 178 Covid-positive cases.

“Presumably that would have affected staff who all live in the local community as well.

“On what planet did you think that in the middle of a Covid crisis it was safe or sensible to put over 20 people in a dormitory so they were all sleeping together in the same room with the same air overnight, each night?”

Mr Rycroft replied: “As the Home Secretary said, we were following the guidance at every stage and the guidance was to ensure there was as much space as possible, certainly two metres between beds.”

Asked if she agreed to this number of people being housed in dormitories during the coronavirus crisis, Priti Patel said the decisions were all based on Public Health England advice, using social distancing measures.

But she added: “Within accommodation for asylum seekers, people do mingle, and ... it is a fact - when we look at what happened in Napier Barracks three weeks ago - people were also not following the rules.”

Ms Cooper replied: “Home Secretary that is still a bit of an astonishing response though, that effectively you’re blaming those people for not following the rules when they were put in accommodation where they had to sleep over 20 to a room.”

Ms Patel said there were plans to stop using hotels to house asylum seekers but stopped short of confirming whether military barracks would continue to be used, as well as looking at other options across the “Government estate”.

The barracks has been used as “emergency” accommodation since September, despite welfare concerns being repeatedly raised by campaigners.

Even before anyone had moved in Public Health England (PHE) warned the dormitories on the military site were “not suitable” for use, according to court documents.

Ms Cooper suggested the guidance provided “obviously wasn’t sufficient” given the number of cases, and called for the advice given to the department to be published.

Mr Rycroft told MPs he “can commit” to providing “as much transparency as possible”, subject to ongoing court cases.

The Home Office has continued to defend its use of the Ministry of Defence-owned barracks, with ministers insisting it was “Covid-compliant”.

Dr Jill O’Leary, the leading GP for charity the Helen Bamber Foundation’s medical advisory service, previously said the barracks had been chosen for “political expediency” and the continued use amounted to a “moral failure”, adding: “The barracks need to be evacuated.

“There’s no justification and no argument left for keeping people in there.”

When asked whether migrants crossing the Channel should be subject to “strict quarantine measures” similar to those being imposed on travellers arriving from “red list” countries, Ms Patel said: “It is absolutely right that everybody who does come to the UK illegally through a Channel crossing that they are put into self-isolation, they are tested once the initial checks have taken place.”

Folkestone & Hythe District Council was expected to vote on Wednesday evening on an opposition motion calling for Napier Barracks to be shut.

The Labour Group motion could see the leader of the council writing to the Home Secretary asking for immediate closure of the barracks.

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