05 September 2023

‘Weeks’ before migrants back on board Bibby barge – minister

05 September 2023

The immigration minister has suggested it could be weeks before migrants are moved back on board the Bibby Stockholm barge.

Robert Jenrick told MPs asylum seekers would be moved back onto the barge in Dorset “as soon as possible”, providing safety checks showed no “cause for concern” and he expects this to take place “within weeks”.

His comments came as figures showed fresh cases of diphtheria among asylum seekers in England have been reported for the first time since January and Channel crossings continued for a fourth day in a row.

The first asylum seekers arrived on the Bibby barge last month but were moved off again just days later after tests revealed Legionella – the bacteria which can cause the potentially fatal Legionnaires’ disease – was present.

Since then, ministers and officials have been unable to say when migrants would be back on board.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman insisted the giant vessel is safe amid threats of legal action from firefighters.

Conservative MP Richard Drax, whose South Dorset constituency is home to the barge, asked in the Commons on Tuesday “when and if” migrants would return.

Assuming that they (the migrants) show no signs of Legionella or indeed any other bacteria or cause of concern, then we will move people back onto the boat as soon as possible

Mr Jenrick replied: “It was very unfortunate that migrants had to be moved off the barge over the summer. We deeply regret that. We did take a very precautionary approach.

“Tests have subsequently been carried out and the definitive answers to those tests will be received very shortly.

“Assuming that they show no signs of Legionella or indeed any other bacteria or cause of concern, then we will move people back onto the boat as soon as possible. I think we can expect that within weeks.”

Labour’s shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock said: “The Bibby Stockholm was supposed to be a symbol of the Conservatives cutting asylum costs, but the minister hasn’t even mentioned those costs today.

“Instead, it stands alongside the boats and the hotels as a floating symbol of Conservative failure and incompetence, which is costing the taxpayer half a million pounds a month.”

It comes as UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data showed three cases of diphtheria among asylum seekers were reported in England in August, taking the total number of cases for 2022 and 2023 to 77.

The total previously stood at 74 after one case was reported in January. No further cases were recorded between February and July, the figures show.

The Home Office refused to confirm if any of the latest cases were found among people on board the Bibby Stockholm or those staying at former RAF airbase Wethersfield Airfield in Essex, which opened to migrants for the first time in July, when asked by the PA news agency.

Fifty-five of the cases have been recorded in the South East, seven in London, and there were fewer than five in each of the following areas: East of England, West Midlands, South West, North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber, the latest report said, but no breakdown by county is provided.

A department spokeswoman said: “The health and welfare of asylum seekers in our care is of the utmost importance. There has been a very small number of cases of diphtheria and all individuals have been treated.

“The Home Office liaises with the UKHSA regarding suspected diphtheria and infection cases. This can include safely moving individuals to more appropriate accommodation to support their safe isolation.”

Asylum seekers with symptoms of the highly contagious disease were put into isolation last year amid an increase in the number of infections among people arriving in the UK.

The only reason the number (of people detected crossing the Channel) isn’t breaking last year’s record is because of the poor weather in July and August. And a strategy that depends on the weather is probably not a very sustainable strategy at all

But ministers and health officials insisted the risk of the public getting diphtheria is very low and infections are rare.

At the time, Ms Braverman faced criticism about overcrowding and outbreaks of disease at Manston amid concerns a man held there may have died from a diphtheria infection.

Since the start of September, 1,271 migrants have been detected crossing the Channel, according to Home Office figures.

Pictures showed groups of men being brought ashore on Tuesday amid hot, dry and calm conditions at sea before boarding a coach to be driven away from a Border Force compound in Dover, Kent.

On Monday, 286 people made the journey in five boats, taking the provisional total for the year so far to 21,372.

In the Commons, the immigration minister insisted “our plan is the most comprehensive of any strategy to tackle this problem in Europe”, adding: “And it is showing. As of today, arrivals are down by 20% compared with last year and for the month of August, the reduction was more than a third.”

But Mr Kinnock said: “The only reason the number isn’t breaking last year’s record is because of the poor weather in July and August. And a strategy that depends on the weather is probably not a very sustainable strategy at all.”

Mr Jenrick also insisted the Government is “on track” to clear the backlog of 92,601 so-called “legacy” which had been in the system as of the end of June last year– after Rishi Sunak set a target of doing so by the end of 2023.

Separate figures show there has been a sharp rise in the number of staff working on clearing the backlog. The number of full-time equivalent roles is up from 1,729 as of July 31 to 2,445 as of August 31 – a jump of 41%.

But Mr Kinnock branded the legacy backlog “a figment of the Prime Minister’s imagination”, adding: “The only backlog that matters is the 175,000 people (who are waiting for an initial decision on their application) and that is still going up and we know that the Government is cooking the books in this regard, making large numbers of asylum seekers as withdrawn because they’ve missed a single appointment or failed to fill in a form correctly.”

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