Housing asylum seekers in barracks against health advice branded ‘moral failure’

Michael Drummond, PA South East Correspondent
·3-min read

A doctor has accused the Home Office of “moral failure” over the continued housing of asylum seekers at an ageing and virus-hit military barracks.

Napier Barracks in Kent has been used as “emergency” accommodation since September last year, despite significant welfare concerns.

But even before any residents had moved in Public Health England (PHE) gave warnings that the dormitories on the military site were “not suitable” for use, according to court documents.

In the months since it opened, coronavirus has surged behind the barbed wire fences with at least 120 residents testing positive.

Despite this, the Home Office has continued to defend its use of the Ministry of Defence-owned barracks.

Napier Barracks incident
Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent following a fire at the site (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Last week, Home Secretary Priti Patel said the site is “Covid-compliant” and “has been from day one”.

Immigration minister Chris Philp said last month that those housed in Napier Barracks were staying in “safe, suitable, Covid-compliant accommodation”.

At least four residents at Napier Barracks have attempted suicide and others have self-harmed, according to court documents.

Dr Jill O’Leary, the leading GP for charity the Helen Bamber Foundation’s medical advisory service, said the news that the Home Office had apparently rejected a PHE warning was “very, very sad but not surprising”.

She told the PA news agency: “We have been very vocal about our concerns about the unsuitability of the barracks and the fact that it wasn’t Covid-19 compliant which is evidenced by the fact that there was obviously this Covid-19 outbreak.”

Dr O’Leary said the barracks had been chosen for “political expediency” and the continued use amounted to a “moral failure”.

She added: “The barracks need to be evacuated, there’s no justification and no argument left for keeping people in there.”

Doctors and lawyers from organisations including the Helen Bamber Foundation, Doctors of the World and Freedom from Torture have been monitoring the situation at the barracks.

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The site has been used to house up to 400 residents, but reports suggest many have been moved off the site in recent days with around 50 remaining.

Lawyers representing six men previously housed at Napier Barracks, all of whom are said to be “survivors of torture and/or human trafficking”, say it must be “immediately” closed down.

In a witness statement, in court documents, they remark on the “troubling” revelation that PHE warned the Home Office that the dormitories “were not suitable” for use – advice which was rejected.

They also allege that “no Home Office official has visited the site since November 13 2020” – a claim the Home Office has denied.

That the Home Office had been warned by PHE that the dormitories were not suitable was mentioned in the department’s submissions to the court and was not disputed by its spokesperson.

The Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government provides safe, warm and secure accommodation with three nutritious meals served a day, all paid for by the taxpayer.

“Napier has previously accommodated army personnel and it is wrong to say it is not adequate for asylum seekers.

“The Home Office has worked extremely closely with Public Health England to minimise risks of coronavirus and this track record will be robustly defended in court.”

The spokesperson added that Tuesday’s hearing was “one step in the legal process”, adding “the Home Office has not lost or conceded the case”.

Bella Sankey, director of charity Detention Action, said: “Of course PHE warned Priti Patel that her refugee camp experiment would put public health at risk – anyone with a passing interest in Covid transmission can see this.

“The Home Office should fully concede, close the barracks and save lives without delay.”