The Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, has announced that quick action was taken to relocate asylum seekers from the Bibby Stockholm barge after traces of Legionella bacteria were discovered.
Amidst concerns about the response to the situation, Barclay stated that Home Office ministers were only informed about the issue on the night of August 10, despite claims that a local council had informed the vessel’s contractors about test results on August 7, the same day migrants boarded the barge.
The discovery of the bacteria led to the evacuation of all 39 individuals who had boarded the floating accommodation docked in Portland, Dorset, on August 11.
Tory-run Dorset Council stated that it had informed the responsible organizations, barge operators CTM and Landry & Kling, about preliminary test results on August 7, the same day it received them.
A Home Office official was then notified about the discovery on August 8.
Barclay maintained that ministers were only made aware of the situation on August 10 but did not rule out the possibility that Home Office officials might have known earlier.
He emphasized that immediate action was taken as soon as ministers were notified, citing it as a Home Office-led response.
Additionally, he expressed interest in returning migrants to the accommodation barge to help reduce the daily cost of providing hotels for asylum seekers, which currently amounts to £6 million.
The presence of Legionella bacteria was confirmed through analysis conducted by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on behalf of Dorset’s environmental health team.
UKHSA chief Dame Jenny Harries explained that the initial findings did not warrant a response from her agency, as there could have been environmental factors not posing a public health risk.
However, the local health protection team was alerted on the night of August 9, and UKHSA’s involvement commenced on August 10.
The migrants had boarded the Bibby Stockholm on August 7 as part of the government’s “small boats week” policy initiative, aimed at addressing the challenges posed by migrants crossing the English Channel and the backlog in the asylum system.
Dame Jenny Harries expressed the viewpoint that places should always be as safe as possible in public health terms.
She stated that the Home Office’s decision to relocate asylum seekers from the vessel was precautionary, even before a formal recommendation was made.
Dorset Council defended its handling of the situation, clarifying that it was not its responsibility to inform the Home Office.
Instead, that responsibility rested with CTM and Landry & Kling, the companies contracted by the Home Office to operate the barge.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticized the housing of migrants on barges, in hotels, or disused military air bases as not being a solution to the “broken” asylum system.
He acknowledged that an incoming Labour government might need to manage such situations inherited upon taking office.
In the English Channel, further activity was observed following a high number of migrants crossing in recent days.
Over 1,600 people were detected making the journey from France between Thursday and Saturday of the previous week, although no recorded crossings were reported on Sunday.
Tragically, at least six individuals lost their lives and many were rescued after a boat encountered difficulties off the coast of Sangatte, northern France, on Saturday.
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