Severe coronavirus restrictions may have to be in place for “many more months” in prisons unless there is faster “universal vaccination” of staff and inmates, according to the Government’s scientific advisers.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said measures behind bars to keep the infections under control and outbreaks to a minimum – such as keeping prisoners locked in cells for up to 23 hours a day, a ban on visits and cuts in training and exercise – have a “highly negative effect” on rehabilitation and mental health.
Prison outbreaks are some of the largest “in any setting in the country” and in the second wave of the pandemic, 79% of outbreaks in jails in England and Wales involved 50 people or more, the scientists said.
Controlling infections will become “increasingly challenging” as numbers of prisoners increase to normal levels but failure to do so could put wider society at risk, they warned.
In the March paper on Covid-19 transmission in prison, commissioned by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to help inform long-term policy, scientists from Sage’s Environmental and Modelling group (EMG) transmission group said: “Prisons will remain at high risk of outbreaks even when disease levels in the community are low because importation of a single case can lead to a large outbreak.
“Without high levels of immunity or continued intensive control measures, prisons could in future become amplifiers or reservoirs of infection, including variants of concern.
“The flow of prisoners into prison is set to increase markedly as courts reopen and a large backlog of cases are addressed.
“This will lead to increased occupancy levels and difficulty in maintaining current control measures.”
The current “severe restrictions employed have a highly negative effect on mental health of prisoners and their families and rehabilitation”, the paper warned, adding: “In the absence of universal vaccination of staff and prisoners it is likely that these measures will need to be continued for many more months.
“Modelling suggests that universal vaccination of prisoners would have a similar impact to the current highly intensive control measures and that vaccination of staff would also decrease infection levels in residents.
“This suggests that severe restrictions could be lifted much faster if vaccine is rolled out faster than currently planned under the current prioritisation criteria.”
The paper added: “Failure to protect prisons from increased transmission levels will leave a window of opportunity for new variants to amplify, potentially leading to prisons as a reservoir of infection for the community as has been observed with other infectious diseases.”
Prisons were described by scientists as “crowded, communal settings” which were “highly prone to outbreaks of Covid-19 and consequent raised risk of hospitalisations and deaths”.
The outbreaks – defined as such when at least two prisoners or staff test positive – are “frequent, large, long lasting (over a period of weeks) and difficult to control”. There is “ongoing evidence” they are continuing and there are “higher levels of infection than in the general population”.
Incidence of the disease, the number and size of outbreaks, hospital admissions and mortality rates have “increased markedly” during the second wave compared to the first, “as also observed in the community”, the paper said.
This is despite prison staff now having routine testing, as well as mass testing during outbreaks, prisoners being tested when they arrived and checks carried out on wastewater.
According to the MoJ data for the week to Monday, one prisoner had died after catching coronavirus and 31 inmates had tested positive in 13 jails – far fewer than previously reported earlier in the pandemic.
As of Friday, 77,738 people were behind bars in 120 prisons around the country.
The paper said: “Regular testing of staff helps to minimise risk but is limited by incomplete uptake.”
It also noted that prisoners often come from, and are released to, “poorer communities with higher levels of Covid-19”.
Juliet Lyon, chairman of the independent advisory panel on deaths in custody, urged the Government to “act now on scientific advice to protect the lives of prisoners, staff and the wider community”, adding: “Sage provides clear and pressing reasons to vaccinate people held in closed institutions and the staff who care for them, not piecemeal by age, but all at once and immediately.”