Politics

Health chiefs acted to stop diphtheria outbreak at asylum centre, minister insists

More than 500 people at the Manston asylum centre were vaccinated against diphtheria, the health secretary says, after controversy over their removal to hotels.

Suella Braverman, the home secretary, is under fresh pressure after a report that more than 70 people suspected to have the highly-contagious disease were relocated across the country.

But Steve Barclay denied the government has been negligent – as he insisted there is only a “very low” risk to the general public, because most people also have the protection of a childhood jab.

“We vaccinated a range of people at Manston before they were moved, so that was part of the targeted action that UKHSA [the UK Health Security Agency] put in place,” the health secretary said, on a hospital visit in London.

“Clearly, within the population as a whole, it’s very low risk because there’s very high uptake of vaccinations within the local population.

“But we’re monitoring it closely and that’s why so many people were vaccinated – 500 were vaccinated before they left Manston.”

UKHSA will confirm today whether the number of asylum seekers with diphtheria at Manston was as high as the 70-plus reported.

Massive – and potentially illegal – overcrowding at the Kent centre led to thousands of people living, for many weeks, in what a watchdog condemned as “wretched” conditions.

Numbers have fallen significantly, but Ms Braverman has been accused of failing to act on legal advice that detention beyond 24 hours was unlawful.

The Association of Directors of Public Health has accused the government of putting “asylum seekers and potentially hotel workers at avoidable and preventable risk”.

It’s president, Jim McManus, claimed an offer to help ministers cope with the outbreak was “rebuffed” – making “the situation far worse than it could have been”.

Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman, said Ms Braverman “must take responsibility and resign immediately” over the “scandal” at Manston.

“The UK is better than this. The Conservative government should be ashamed of their callous complacency over the health and wellbeing of asylum seekers coming out of Manston,” she said.

Ministers have argued that the people infected with diphtheria had the disease before they arrived in the UK.

On Saturday, a test on a man who died after being held at the Manston centre for one week showed “diphtheria may be the cause of the illness”.

Separately, Ms Braverman has warned that millions of pounds may have to be paid out if asylum seekers were held illegally at Manston in a “Windrush-style” compensation scheme.

Government officials fear thousands of detained asylum seekers could be in line for at least £5,000 each, while some held for long periods could receive bigger amounts.

More than 4,000 asylum seekers were there earlier this month – despite its permitted capacity being only 1,600.

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