Great Britain

Coronavirus: Asylum centre criticised for lack of social distancing measures suffers outbreak of infections

There has been a coronavirus outbreak in an asylum centre in West Yorkshire that has been accused on multiple occasions for having a lack of social distancing measures.

Hundreds of asylum seekers have been ordered not to leave Urban House, an initial accommodation centre designed to hold people seeking asylum for short periods of time before they are given longer-term housing, after a number of residents tested positive for Covid-19.

The facility, which currently houses 246 asylum seekers, most of whom have been at the facility since the start of the lockdown, has been criticised on multiple occasions for failing to implement effective social distancing guidelines, including after photographs were published of residents eating meals in close proximity to each other.

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All asylum seekers in the centre, which is run by private firm Mears under a Home Office contract, were asked on Friday under the instruction of Wakefield Council not to leave the grounds for 14 days, following a "small outbreak" of Covid-19.

The council said the residents who had tested positive were being isolated and treated at another location, while a mobile testing unit had been set up by council to test the remaining staff and residents to help limit any further potential spread. No new residents had come to Urban House since the outbreak was identified, it said.

The Independent understands that plans had been in place to start moving people out of the centre and into smaller properties next week, but that the council and Mears are planning to bring the moves forward to this weekend in response to the outbreak. Some families were said to be being moved out of the facility on Friday evening, despite this contradicting the council's statement that they would self-isolate for 14 days.

Majid, an Iranian asylum seeker who has been in Urban House for four months, told The Independent that he and other residents were informed after breakfast on Friday that they were no longer allowed to leave the facility, which he said made him feel angry and afraid.

"Everyone is full of fear, stress and anxiety. We’re talking about life or death. In here, there are more than 200 people all living together all day, sharing toilets and eating areas. There is no respect for anyone. There is no respect for life," he added.

The 35-year-old, who arrived in the UK in March after fleeing religious persecution in his country, said he believed he and others in the facility, which is only designed to house people for around three weeks, had been "forgotten" during the pandemic.

"The UK has forgotten this place. No one is thinking about us. No one can see what’s going on here. We know coronavirus spreads fast when you put many people in one place. It’s not safe. It’s just a joke," he said.

The Independent reported in March that people living in Urban House were being forced to eat in communal spaces in close proximity to one another in breach of social-distancing guidelines. Since then, Mears Group has said social-distancing arrangements have been put in place for mealtimes and that people were “able to keep apart”.

However, a photograph taken on 28 April showed residents in the facility were still having to eat meals within a metre apart.

Majid disputed the claim that people were able to social distance in Urban House, saying: "There is no social distancing in here. Some people are sharing rooms with strangers. To say we are social distancing is just a joke."

Anna Hartley, Wakefield Council’s director of public health, said the council had been working closely with the Mears and Public Health England to manage the “small outbreak” of Covid-19 at the centre, and that NHS staff continued to provide healthcare to residents on a daily basis as they have throughout the pandemic.

She added: “We are treating Urban House as one household, so in-line with government advice to any household where there has been a confirmed case, we are asking all residents to self-isolate for 14 days.”

Wakefield Council declined to reveal the number of residents who had tested positive for coronavirus but said it was fewer than four.

A spokesperson for Mears confirmed that there had been cases of coronavirus at Urban House and that service users had been asked to stay in the grounds of the centre while testing was being arranged by Wakefield Council.

“This is the same situation as any household where there is a case of Covid-19. We are then intending to move service users into alternative accommodation to self-isolate,” the spokesperson said.

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“We are doing our utmost to keep our service users safe in relation to Covid-19. We are working closely with the Home Office, Wakefield Council and with Public Health England and have implemented all advice and guidance, including following a visit and inspection on the 7 April by the director of public health, who approved continued operation of Urban House as a ‘static household’ with no moves in, or out, except where a service user needs to move out to self-isolate."

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The safety and wellbeing of asylum seekers and the local communities in which they live is of the utmost importance. We have put in place a range of measures to specifically support asylum seekers affected by the pandemic.

“We are aware that a small number of residents at Urban House have tested positive for Covid-19. We are working closely with Wakefield Council, Mears Group and Public Health England to respond appropriately.”

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