Action needed to protect against Covid-19 second wave infection risk in asylum accommodation

28 July 2020

Individuals in asylum accommodation remain at heightened risk of contracting Covid-19 without stronger action from accommodation providers and the Home Office, the Home Affairs Committee has found in its report on Home Office preparedness for COVID-19 (Coronavirus): institutional accommodation.

The Committee warns that the continued use of shared rooms in asylum accommodation makes it extremely difficult for people to social distance and calls for an end to this practice before a second major outbreak of Covid-19.

The Committee's inquiry into institutional accommodation during the Covid-19 crisis - both asylum accommodation and immigration detention - welcomes sensible steps that were taken by the Home Office in the Spring to prevent Covid-19 spreading, including suspending evictions from asylum accommodation and substantially reducing the number of people in immigration detention. However, the Committee warns that the risks have not gone away, and further measures are needed while the risk of a second wave of infection remains high.

The Committee heard evidence that shared facilities in some asylum accommodation, such as bathrooms and kitchens, were making social distancing and self-isolation all but impossible. In some cases, individuals did not have access to laundry facilities or sufficient supplies of cleaning products such as soap or hand sanitiser. During a national health crisis this is simply not acceptable. The report also raises serious concerns that, in some cases, large numbers of residents were moved between different accommodation at short notice without proper support or the involvement of local authorities, potentially undermining public health as well as the health and well-being of vulnerable residents.

Reducing risk

The Committee calls on the Home Office and accommodation providers to ensure that no individual in asylum accommodation is put at risk due to deficiencies in the accommodation and associated support provided to them. Every individual should be able to self-isolate or shield themselves, whether this be due to likely infection or heightened risk due to existing health issues. The Committee expresses deep concern about the Home Office decision to continue to allow accommodation providers to put unrelated adults into shared rooms as part of the new contracts signed in 2019, despite previous warnings about the problems it caused. It warns that this is even more inappropriate during the Covid-19 crisis and calls on the Home Office, providers and local authorities to work together to phase out room sharing and ensure that high quality additional accommodation is sourced to enable this to happen. Accommodation providers must also do more to tackle difficulties in social distancing in communal facilities such as shared bathrooms and dining areas, and ensure full provision of appropriate cleaning facilities and products, or provide the means for individuals to purchase them themselves.

The ability to continue communicating with the outside world during lockdown, maintaining person-to-person contact, getting updates on lockdown regulations, or accessing support services, is critical in enabling vulnerable people to cope in extremely challenging circumstances. The Home Office approach of informing service users where they could obtain free wi-fi locally was completely inappropriate and may have increased the risk of infection. All asylum seekers must have adequate access to information through phones, television or the internet at this time.

The accommodation providers themselves expressed concern that asylum seekers put into hotels were given no money to buy small items such as fruit, or phone credit. The Committee also heard that those who were moved from other asylum accommodation into hotels during the lockdown had previous Government financial support taken away. The Committee urges the Minister to reinstate this payment.

The report criticises the quality of planning and decision-making within the Mears Group, and the poor management of service users' welfare during the pandemic, following in particular the decision to move large numbers of asylum seekers from one location to another in a rush, without consulting local authorities or ensuring proper support is in place. The company has been widely criticised for its actions in Glasgow, where more than 300 asylum seekers were moved from self-contained accommodation to hotels without sufficient notice and without a vulnerability assessment demonstrating that the move could be made safely. In Wakefield, asylum seekers were moved out of Urban House and moved across the country when an outbreak occurred in July, without arrangements for testing or consulting the receiving authorities to ensure that the consequences of dispersing these individuals into other communities were fully considered.

Chair's comments

Publishing the report, Chair of the Committee Rt Hon Yvette Cooper said:

"During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen the devastating impact this virus can have and the heightened risk in shared accommodation and institutions. The threat from coronavirus hasn't gone away and more action is needed to prevent it spreading in institutional accommodation and to protect the physical and mental health of those in both asylum accommodation and immigration detention.

Making strangers share rooms in asylum accommodation is completely inappropriate. It was the wrong thing to do before the pandemic, and the Home Office were warned against allowing this to continue before they drew up the latest contracts. But the Covid-19 crisis makes it even more important to end this practice, as it makes it impossible for those individuals to socially distance.

As the recent outbreak in Urban House has shown, much more needs to be done by providers and the Home Office to make sure that there are safeguards in place to prevent the virus spreading within asylum accommodation. Accommodation providers need to make sure enough support is in place. We were extremely concerned to hear about cases where residents did not have access to proper facilities or cleaning products, and even in hotel accommodation, the Home Office should be ensuring that people have money to buy things like hand sanitiser or other basic things they might need. We were particularly troubled about the way Mears Group handled moving large numbers of residents between different kinds of accommodation in a rush - firstly in Glasgow in March, and then from Wakefield in July. In both cases we heard how proper support was not put in place for residents, leaving some people in difficulty and distress, while local authorities were not informed about what was happening to ensure that public health was being protected.

Our report found that many of the measures the Home Office took on asylum accommodation and immigration detention at the beginning of the crisis to reduce the risk of infection spreading were sensible - but that more still needs to be done to keep individuals and communities safe as the threat of coronavirus hasn't gone away".

Access to health services and testing

Access to primary and secondary health services must be in place for all service users and healthy, fresh food appropriate to individuals' dietary needs made available. Access to healthcare in initial accommodation (IA) appears to be inconsistent in particular.

While the risk of a second wave of Covid-19 infections remains high, and all forms of residential accommodation provide a heightened risk of outbreaks, access to testing will be critical. The Government must publish a clear policy on testing those living in asylum accommodation where there is an outbreak. Any person in asylum accommodation who wants or needs a test at any time must be supported in doing so. 

Immigration Removal Centres

The substantial reduction in the number of individuals detained in Immigration Removal Centres since the beginning of lockdown was a sensible response to the Covid-19 pandemic and will have helped prevent infections. Given that nearly 40% of those remaining are classed as having a significant vulnerability under the Adults at Risk policy, consideration should be given to moving these individuals back into the community. Where it is not possible to remove them from detention all possible precautions must be given to ensure detainees are able to self-isolate safely within IRCs.

Producing lasting change

Temporary measures introduced by the Government in response to Covid-19 have the potential to produce future improvements in the operation of the asylum and immigration removal processes. The extension of asylum support for refugees until their first welfare benefit payment was a sensible and compassionate measure that should be made permanent. The removal from immigration detention of individuals who were not a danger to the public and did not have any prospect of imminent removal was equally sensible. 

Further information

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