UK fails to act on its own warning to ensure migrants are vaccinated against diptheria

UK Health Security Agency issued warning in September to ensure migrants were vaccinated against diphtheria – months before someone died of it

Men at the Manston immigration short-term holding facility in Thanet, Kent. PA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The British government failed to act on its own warning to ensure migrants were vaccinated against diphtheria, months before a man in a detention centre died from the disease.

In September, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) issued a note warning of an increase in case numbers and reminding authorities working with migrants to ensure they were vaccinated against the highly contagious illness.

A further warning was issued by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in early October to say diphtheria was spreading and could result in a severe outcome for those in crowded facilities, according to reports.

Dan O’Mahoney, the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, told the Home Affairs Committee on October 26 that a “very small number of cases” had been detected at Manston.

But an investigation by The Independent claims that officials at Manston did not routinely check migrants’ vaccination status ― leaving it instead to GPs after they were moved out ― until after a vaccination campaign began at the site in mid-November, by which point dozens of cases had been confirmed in England.

Two weeks later it was confirmed that a person who died there had been suffering from diphtheria.

Diphtheria is a highly contagious infection that affects the nose and throat, and sometimes the skin.

It can be a serious illness and sometimes fatal, especially in children, if it is not treated quickly.

There have been 50 known cases ― two of which were severe ― in migrants who arrived in the UK on small boats.

The prisons watchdog raised concerns about infectious diseases at Manston after a visit in July.

A report said: “Paramedic staff were unsure of any guidance, policy or procedure for the management of infectious diseases.”

The ECDC bulletin dated early October said a migrant had already died of diphtheria in the region.

It added: “Most of the current cases are being reported among migrants residing in potentially crowded settings and where some individuals may be unimmunised … in these settings, a severe outcome following a diphtheria infection is possible.”

The ECDC recommended vaccinating migrants against diphtheria, as well as isolating potential cases, contact tracing and making moves to limit overcrowding.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, accused the home secretary of mounting a “completely chaotic” response to diphtheria.

Migrants at immigration processing centre in Manston - in pictures

“It’s clear they should have had sensible screening in place months ago,” she told The Independent.

“Ministers should tell us what they were told and when. They shamefully failed to tell councils and public health officials what was happening and they are still failing to make sure everyone who has been in Manston is now screened or vaccinated. They need to get a grip.”

The Detention Action charity said the government had ignored repeated warnings and recommendations, including those from their own advisers.

Deputy director James Wilson told The Independent: “Manston exceeded three times its capacity for weeks, creating horrific conditions which encouraged the spread of infectious disease amongst extremely vulnerable adults and children.

“It is deeply concerning that the home secretary appears to have put anti-asylum rhetoric above the safety and well-being of people in her care.”

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick denied that it took the government too long to respond and focus on the threat.

“This individual’s death is deeply regrettable, but we have been working on, and alive to, this issue for many months,” he told MPs on Monday, saying the “advice of the UKHSA has been followed throughout”.

Vaccinations were now being offered to all those arriving at Manston, he said.

“There is testing for those presenting with symptoms and for close contacts, and those testing positive are being isolated in a designated place,” he added. “No one presenting with symptoms will progress into the asylum accommodation system.”

Updated: December 01, 2022, 1:43 PM