Home Office accused of ‘putting political agenda ahead of public health’ as new detainees moved into removal centre ahead of deportation flights despite coronavirus outbreak
People in a UK removal centre say they fear for their lives after it emerged more than a dozen have tested positive for coronavirus but are not being moved to other units because there is “no space” to do so.
The Home Office has been accused of prioritising mass deportation flights over public health as it continues to detain people in Colnbrook removal centre, near Heathrow, despite an escalating Covid outbreak in the facility.
It emerged a week ago that at least two people had tested positive for Covid-19 in the centre ahead of a scheduled charter flight to Jamaica. The flight went ahead despite concerns that people on board may have been in contact with infected individuals.
The Independent understands that the virus has now spread in the centre, with reports that at least 17 people have tested positive in one unit alone.
While people who had the virus were previously moved to another unit to self-isolate, this procedure is no longer being followed and the unit is instead being treated as a household, meaning all detainees having to share facilities such as showers. The Home Office said this was in line with government guidelines.
Meanwhile, the Home Office is said to be moving new people into other units at the centre, ahead of a charter flight to Nigeria and Ghana scheduled for next week.
Javaun Simpson, 25, who was due to be deported to Jamaica last week but had his ticket cancelled, told The Independent: “We were told by the officers yesterday that 17 people on this unit have tested positive, but we’re not being told who.
“The people who have tested positive should have been moved, but they’re telling us the other units are full so they don’t have space. They’re filling up units when they know there are Covid cases on our unit. We need that space. When they found out there were Covid cases, they should have stopped bringing people in.”
Mr Simpson, who did a PCR test on Friday and has not received the result yet, said people who had tested positive were still walking around and using shared facilities, including one man who does the laundry for all 43 detainees in the unit and is still carrying out this job.
“Yesterday I had to tell one of the detainees who has it to stay in his room. He was walking up and down, touching handles and everything. It’s not right. They’re not looking after us in here,” Mr Simpson said.
“Everyone’s worried, everyone’s fearing for their lives, and nothing’s being done.”
Another detainee, Michael White, 48, who suffers from asthma, said: “I’m scared. The nurse took my blood pressure yesterday and it was sky high. I’m very worried that coronavirus is going to kill me. I won’t be able to breath properly.”
Karen Doyle, of campaign group Movement for Justice, said the Home Office was behaving “dangerously and irresponsibly” and “putting their political agenda ahead of human lives and public health”.
She added: “The Home office deliberately played down this Covid outbreak and lied to the Jamaican government about testing just to push ahead with that charter regardless of risk to detainees, staff and the people of Jamaica.
“It is now clear that Covid is spreading through Colnbrook, yet still detainees are being moved around and new detainees are being brought in ahead of more charter flights.
“Nigeria, Zimbabwe and all countries which accept these charter flights should be asking serious questions and putting the safety of their people first by refusing to accept these flights.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We make no apology for seeking to remove dangerous foreign criminals and those with no right to remain in the UK.
“We take the welfare of detainees in our care very seriously, and work closely with our providers and Public Health England to ensure all medical advice is closely followed and people self-isolate where needed.”
A spokesperson for Mitie, the private firm contracted to manage Colnbrook, said: “The safety and well-being of our employees and detained individuals is always our priority and we have robust measures in place to ensure a safe environment for all.
“This includes detailed risk assessments and procedures, including regarding isolation of individuals who have tested positive for Covid, which have been developed in line with the latest government guidance.”