Legionella on asylum seeker barge asks 'very serious questions' of UK

Residents could have been infected by showering aboard Bibby Stockholm, expert says

The first asylum seekers boarded the Bibby Stockholm on Monday, but the barge was evacuated on Friday over health fears. AFP
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The UK government was facing “very serious questions” on Saturday after it housed asylum seekers on a barge with contaminated water.

Ministers were accused of having “clearly failed” to take health and safety concerns seriously, after the discovery of legionella bacteria forced 39 people to disembark from the Bibby Stockholm.

A health expert said people who had a shower on board the barge could have been exposed to the bug that causes legionnaires’ disease. Officials say nobody has shown symptoms.

An empty hospital “would check that before we actually started moving patients into that ward, and this didn’t seem to happen. This is very concerning,” medical professor Paul Hunter said.

“If you’re young and healthy you might not actually get any symptoms at all. But if you’ve got pre-existing lung disease, if you’re a smoker, then it can be very severe,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The health scare was a setback for ministers after the first asylum seekers were put aboard the Bibby Stockholm on Monday, in what was billed as a “stop the boats week” to demonstrate the government’s tough stance on migration.

Stephen Kinnock, the Labour opposition’s shadow immigration minister, has written to his Conservative counterpart Robert Jenrick asking what precautions were taken by the Home Office.

He asked the government to explain “as a matter of urgency” when it was warned of health risks and whether any asylum seekers boarded the Bibby Stockholm during testing.

“The government has very serious questions to answer on this, particularly around how much they knew about the risk or actual presence of legionella when they chose to press ahead with sending the asylum seekers on to the barge,” Mr Kinnock said.

He said the government “has clearly failed to take the public health concerns that have been raised for months seriously”.

On board the Bibby Stockholm barge – in pictures

Firefighters said they had received no response from the Home Office after raising concerns about the “huge health and safety risk” of housing asylum seekers on the barge.

The legionella scare “suggests that it's only a matter of time before either lives are lost or there is serious harm to a detainee”, said Ben Selby, assistant secretary general of the Fire Brigades Union.

The Home Office said the health of asylum seekers was its “utmost priority”. It said the bacteria was found in pipes and not at the point of entry to the Bibby Stockholm, and that there was no risk to the mainland.

All 39 have been taken to “contingency asylum accommodation” while health officials investigate. The vessel is moored off the coast of Dorset on the south coast of England.

The government has said housing asylum seekers on the barge was cheaper than putting them up in hotels, after the number of migrants arriving on English Channel boats hit a milestone of 100,000 since 2018.

It was revealed on Friday that 775 people crossed the Channel a day earlier, the highest figure this year.

Mr Jenrick had said on Wednesday that the barge, which houses only working-age men to avoid straining local services, was “decent accommodation” used by oil and gas workers.

Updated: August 12, 2023, 9:28 AM