A damning assessment of the site has identified “serious safeguarding concerns”, with “inadequate” support for people who had self-harmed, revealing that these individuals were placed in a “decrepit ‘isolation block’” considered “unfit for habitation”.
Residents who may have been children were also housed in the same block pending an age assessment, with one individual in this position held for up to two weeks, the inspection found.
The inspection of Napier Barracks, in Kent, and Penally Barracks, in Pembrokeshire, carried out by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI), assisted by the Prison Inspectorate, concludes that once one resident in either site was infected with Covid-19, a large-scale outbreak would be “virtually inevitable”.
A Covid outbreak at Napier Barracks in mid-January saw nearly 200 people – including those who are clinically vulnerable – infected, and led to residents being prevented from leaving their dormitories, apart from to access toilets or showers, for weeks.
Inspectors said the Home Office had been “slow to recognise” the impact on residents of prolonged isolation in accommodation that was “not designed or intended for long-term stays”, and failed to “exercise adequate oversight” at either site, with Home Office staff “rarely present”.
The findings confirm that recommendations from Public Health England (PHE) and Public Health Wales (PHW) warning the sites did not comply with guidance were “not actioned” before hundreds of asylum seekers were placed there in September.
This brings into question claims by the Home Office’s permanent secretary Matthew Rycroft, when speaking to the Home Affairs Select Committee last month, that the department had “followed the guidance at every stage”.
The inspection found that Home Office contractor Clearsprings was given less than two weeks to make each site operational, and that local healthcare teams were not consulted in advance.
“Insufficient time to prepare before the first asylum seekers arrived and there seems to have been little understanding or regard on the Home Office’s part of what impact this would have at the local level,” it states.
Inspectors visited the sites following mounting concern about the conditions residents were living in after they were repurposed as asylum accommodation in September, holding around 600 people between them.
The number of residents in both camps has dramatically reduced in recent weeks, with fewer than 100 currently said to be held across both sites. However, the Home Office has said it plans to move new residents in within weeks.
Shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch said the “damaging” report showed home secretary Priti Patel had “recklessly” put lives at risk during the pandemic, “callously” sought to deflect the blame to those who had been put at risk and “seemingly mislead a commons committee”.
Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee Yvette Cooper echoed her remarks, saying the report was a “damning criticism” of the leadership and culture of the Home Office and suggested it hadn’t yet learnt the lessons from the Windrush scandal.
“The Home Office must immediately publish all the public health advice they received before deciding to use the barracks and explain why they told the Select Committee they were operating in line with the guidance when this report is clear that they weren’t,” she said.
Among other findings, the watchdogs reveal that the Crown Premises Fire Safety Inspectorate had expressed serious concerns about fire safety at Napier Barracks which still had not been fully addressed.
Many residents told inspectors they felt “depressed and hopeless” at their circumstances, with a survey finding that all of those who responded at Napier and the vast majority at Penally said they had felt depressed at some points, and about a third said they had felt suicidal.
The findings mark the latest in a series of damning revelations about unsuitable and non-Covid compliant conditions on the sites. The Independent revealed last week that a previously unpublished NHS assessment of the military site in January outlined a series of failings by ministers to prevent and control a Covid outbreak among residents.
The report, carried out by Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) on 20 January, states that there were “too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection”.
Separately, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed last week that the Home Office pushed ahead with the plan to repurpose the military sites despite acknowledging that it would be a "risk" to house asylum seekers there during the pandemic.
Naomi Phillips, director of policy and advocacy at British Red Cross, said the sites were “completely inappropriate and inhumane” as housing for people fleeing war, persecution and violence, adding: “Our worst fears about the impact on people’s mental health have been realised”.
She called for the “urgent closure” of the sites and a commitment from government to work with local authorities, support organisations and communities to provide “safe and suitable” accommodation for those seeking refuge in the UK.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “During these unprecedented times we have met our statutory duty to provide asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute, with suitable accommodation and three meals a day all paid for by the British taxpayer.
“We expect the highest possible standards from our service providers and have instructed them to make improvements at the site.”
They said it was wrong to say the barracks were not adequate for asylum seekers and that the department had placed people at the sites in order to ensure there was sufficient accommodation capacity.