Coronavirus: Yarl's Wood detainees 'terrified' after positive test

By Emma Ailes
BBC News

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image copyrightSBNA
image captionYarl's Wood detention centre, in Bedfordshire

Women detainees are still being sent to a UK immigration removal centre despite a confirmed case of coronavirus, a charity has said.

At least five new detainees have reportedly been sent to Yarl's Wood, in Bedfordshire, since a woman tested positive at the centre, on 22 March.

Some women in the centre had underlying health conditions and sanitation there was poor, one detainee told BBC News.

The UK government says it is following guidance from Public Health England.

Yarl's Wood detention centre is where most women in immigration detention in the UK are held.

The most recent new arrival was reportedly brought in on Friday, when the UK had more than 14,000 confirmed cases and 759 deaths from coronavirus.

It is not clear whether the people arriving were new arrests or transfers from prisons or other immigration removal centres.

'So afraid'

Women for Refugee Women, which supports women in the centre, said the decision to continue bringing new detainees into the centre was "negligent" and accused the Home Office of putting lives at risk.

Detainees with health conditions were "terrified" about becoming infected and had been given no information or effective means to protect themselves, the charity said.

One woman in her 40s, who asked to remain anonymous, told BBC News detainees were continuing to move around the centre.

She said there was no social distancing in communal areas such as the canteen and she had continued to share a room until Tuesday despite having an underlying health condition.

"I can't sleep because of the worry, no-one knows what's going on," she said.

"I try to stay in my room but you have to go to the canteen for food. Everyone is panicking"

Another woman told charity workers: "I am so scared that I will die.

"I am not a young woman and my health problems mean that I am at high risk. I feel so afraid."

'Lax attitude'

Women for Refugee Women director Natasha Walter said the situation was "alarming" and detainees "incredibly stressed and afraid".

Women had reported a lax attitude to hygiene in the centre in recent weeks, she said, and protection measures "appeared to have become even more lax following the confirmation of the Covid-19 case".

"There is only hand sanitiser in the area where women go to pick up their food - all the hand sanitiser that had been put out on the unit where the women's rooms was removed.

"We have also been told that staff had started doing regular cleaning of the unit and other areas initially following the confirmed case but this now seems to have stopped.

"Women have been issued with one pair of gloves and one mask each since last weekend and no instructions. It's worse than useless.

"I feel that the Home Office is putting lives at risk."

Women with underlying health conditions had not been given any extra means of protection or information, she said, and detainees were still able to move around the centre.

Staff had not provided updated information or advice and some women had reported now being told there was no coronavirus in Yarl's Wood and "no need for concern", the charity said.

The Home Office strongly denied the claims.

It said no-one in detention currently had coronavirus, including staff, and there were robust contingency plans in place, including measures such as protective isolation.

Extra measures

On Wednesday, the High Court rejected a legal challenge that argued for detainees to be temporarily released while the coronavirus crisis was continuing.

The Home Office has committed to measures including:

  • ensuring detainees showing symptoms or those at higher risk have single-occupancy rooms
  • introducing social-distancing measures in communal spaces
  • providing anti-bacterial cleaning materials to detainees on request

However, reports from detainees suggest "few, if any, of these measures have been implemented in Yarl's Wood", Ms Walter said.

Toufique Hossain, public law director at Duncan Lewis, who acted in the High Court case on behalf of the charity Detention Action, said it was "absolutely irrational" that detentions were continuing.

"The law is very clear," he said.

"The Home Office can only detain in circumstances where they can effect removal or deportation within a reasonable period of time.

"They cannot do that, so they should really not be detaining anyone.

"It's even more problematic for those who are vulnerable and we know that many detainees in immigration detention centres are vulnerable."

More than 300 detainees have been released from the UK's seven immigration centres in recent days but about 750 remain detained, according to most recent figures.

A Home Office official said: "It is completely wrong to say that we are not offering extra protection for detainees during this outbreak.

"The High Court ruled just last week that we are taking sensible, precautionary measures in relation to coronavirus and detention.

"We are following the latest guidance from Public Health England and have moved all women in Yarl's Wood to single rooms."