Letters to the Home Affairs Select Committee from Public Health England (PHE) and Public Health Wales (PHW) confirm that both bodies had warned the government that housing hundreds of people in dormitories at two Ministry of Defence sites was not Covid compliant.
Despite this, the Home Office proceeded to use the barracks accommodation and did not implement measures recommended by the health officials to prevent a mass virus outbreak from occurring.
In January 2021, coronavirus started to spread at one of the sites – Napier Barracks, in Kent – leading to around 200 people testing positive.
The High Court ruled last week that Napier Barracks failed to meet the “minimum standard” and is, therefore, unlawful – but it remains open, with the Home Office saying it is considering “next steps”.
The other site, Penally Barracks, in Pembrokeshire, closed at the beginning of April.
During a court hearing in February it emerged that Public Health England had warned that Napier Barracks was “not suitable” – but the newly published letters expose in more detail the warnings issued by health officials.
One of the letters, from PHE to the committee, includes its response to a Home Office specification document on Napier Barracks drawn up a week before the site opened.
The PHE response stated: “The entire accommodation would need to be tested and probably isolated in single rooms with single bathroom facilities in the case of any outbreak. […] Lots of people in hostel environment is not good from a Covid or any type of infection prevention and control perspective.”
This advice was not heeded, with 14 people continuing to be placed in each dormitory and large numbers of residents sharing bathroom facilities.
In response to the Home Office’s assertion that the dormitories and external shower and toilet blocks could “be adapted to be Covid-19 compliant are acceptable”, the PHE said it “[didn’t] know how dormitories can be Covid compliant” and that the bathroom arrangements were “not good from a Covid secure perspective.”
The letter also reveals that on 24 September, three days after the site opened, Clearsprings Ready Homes – the private company contracted by the Home Office to run the camp – sent a risk assessment to the PHE.
The PHE responded by informing the Home Office and Clearsprings Ready Homes that the Covid-19 risk assessment provided was “not sufficient for the protection of residents, staff and visitors and that this required urgent attention”.
A second risk assessment provided to PHE by Clearsprings Ready Homes on 23 October was “not sufficient for Covid-19 outbreak planning and management purposes”, according to the letter.
Another letter published by the Home Affairs Select Committee, from Public Health Wales, reveals that it had advised the Home Office that the accommodation at Penally Barracks was unsafe.
It said the health body had advised the Home Office that the accommodation “did not conform to the Covid-19 guidance in Wales at that time” and that there were “no plans by the Home Office or Clearsprings Ready Homes to implement Covid-19 risk pathways on site.
Public Health Wales (PHW) advised the department to decrease dormitories to a “maximum of six beds that could be separated by two metres” and establish “isolation facilities that could accommodate people in single rooms with facilities”. It appears this advice was not acted upon.
Kent and Medway Council officials also wrote to the Home Affairs Select Committee explaining that they were “disappointed and surprised” at not being consulted about the plans to repurpose Napier Barracks before use of the site was confirmed.
“The absence of sufficient notice and detailed plans being provided meant that there was an impact on public safety and a significant impact on the safety of the residents of the barracks,” the letter, signed by the directors of public health at the two councils, states.
It adds: “The sizeable outbreak in the barracks is evidence that the accommodation has not been safe throughout the period of its use.”
Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “It remains utterly incomprehensible that the Home Office should think it a good idea to put so many people into dormitories and shared facilities at the height of a pandemic – and even worse that they should have ignored clear public health advice”.
In a separate letter to the committee, home secretary Priti Patel acknowledged that PHE had advised that dormitory-style accommodation was “not recommended”.
But she added: “We have worked with our accommodation providers at all stages to reduce risk by, amongst many other initiatives, implementing cohorting, signage, an enhanced cleaning regime and staggered mealtimes. We are also providing Covid testing for Napier residents and staff on a twice-weekly basis.”
The Home Office has said the High Court ruling last week was “disappointing” and that it will make a decision on how to respond to it “imminently”.
A Home Office spokesperson said it took “reasonable steps” to give effect to the advice from the health authorities “at all times during the pandemic” and that “significant improvements” had been made to the site.
“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,” they added.
“The court explicitly found that the conditions of the barracks, and the treatment of residents at Napier did not breach human rights.”