Home Office accused of 'creating preventable' health risk after asylum centre diphtheria outbreak

After suspected cases among asylum seekers dispersed from Manston, expert says situation "should have been prevented through joint working"
Manston asylum centre was emptied earlier this month. Photo: Jeff Gilbert/Alamy Live News

By John Johnston

29 Nov 2022

Public health leaders have said the decision to disperse asylum seekers from Manston after outbreaks of disease has put fresh pressure for local health services.

The warning follows reports that more than 70 suspected cases of the highly contagious bacterial infection diphtheria had been confirmed among asylum-seekers who had been moved around the country.

According to The Sunday Times, suspected cases of the disease were seen among asylum seekers being kept in hotels after being dispersed from the Manston processing centre in Kent following concerns about poor conditions and overcrowding at the site.

New data published by the UK Health Security Agency yesterday showed that 50 asylum seekers have tested positive for the disease since January, but that cases had spiked in recent months with 27 infections identified since the start of November.

Two of those cases had left people requiring hospital treatment, while the Home Office admitted the death of a man who had been kept at the Manston site could have been caused by the infection.

Yesterday, Professor Jim McManus, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, which represents local public health leaders, claimed the Home Office had failed to contact them about the dispersal plans and had made the situation "far worse than it could have been".

"Unfortunately, our experience so far of the dispersal of asylum seekers from Manston is that we have had no direct engagement from the Home Office, and although we have offered our support, we have not yet received a response," he said.

"Sadly, the current situation could and should have been prevented through joint working and it is entirely arguable that the lack of information, co-ordination and engagement from the Home Office has made the situation far worse than it could have been."

Health secretary Steve Barclay has insisted the risk to the public is "very low" and claimed that hundreds of migrants had already been vaccinated against the illness before being moved from Manston, but said the government would continue to "closely" monitor reports of infections.

But McManus said that while there was no need for the public to be concerned, the Home Office's "lack of communication and collaboration" had created an "avoidable and preventable risk" among asylum seekers and staff at hotels where migrants are being kept.

"It has also created additional and preventable burdens on already stretched local health systems," he added.

"We remain committed to working with the government and are ready to support with the dispersal from Manston to help ensure that everyone involved is protected from further disease."

Updating MPs in the House of Commons yesterday, immigration minister Robert Jenrick confirmed that from today no asylum seekers with symptoms of the disease would be moved to hotel accommodation, adding it was "absolutely right that we are now vigilant".

"Today we are going above and beyond the UK Health Security Agency baseline by instituting new guidance on the transportation and accommodation for individuals presenting with symptoms," he said.

"From today, no one presenting with symptoms will progress into the asylum accommodation system. They will either remain at Manston, isolating for a short period, or will travel to a dedicated isolation centre in secure transport where they will be treated until deemed medically fit."

Jenrick added that a new screening process had been introduced to test new arrivals for the illness, while accommodation providers were being given updated guidance to handle any potential outbreaks.

Earlier on Monday, a Downing Street spokesperson said the government takes "safety and welfare of people accommodated at these sites very seriously".

"We're working closely with the UK Health Security Agency and other health professionals and councils to make sure all medical guidance and robust protocols are followed," they added. 

"It's important to emphasise to the public the low risk, particularly given the high vaccination rates for diphtheria high amongst the UK population."

John Johnston is a reporter for CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared

Read the most recent articles written by John Johnston - Nadhim Zahawi tax row: PM orders new ethics adviser to investigate

Share this page