The Covid-19 pandemic has created real and serious challenges for institutional accommodation, including in Government-contracted asylum accommodation and immigration detention centres. We have examined the provision of institutional accommodation by different private sector contractors during the pandemic as well as the policy decisions made by the Home Office.
During the lockdown period the Government has taken a series of sensible steps to safeguard those in institutional accommodation. Within the asylum system it has suspended evictions from Home Office accommodation while finding additional accommodation for new applicants for asylum; in June it provisionally increased the asylum support rate to £39.60 per week. We welcome these decisions.
However, significant concerns have been raised about the management and suitability of institutional accommodation in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, and there are a number of areas where we believe the Home Office could have gone further, and where it must extend its approach during the next phase of the national response to Covid-19.
It is deeply concerning that there was so little early access to testing for Covid-19 for asylum seekers housed in shared facilities, given the higher risk of spreading infection in accommodation where it is often difficult to self-isolate and where there are other residents who are shielding. The Government must urgently publish a clear policy on residential testing if there are outbreaks. This must be put in place immediately to ensure that accommodation providers are prepared for all potential scenarios in the next phase of the pandemic.
We are appalled at reports that service users in some accommodation centres were not universally provided either with laundry facilities, cleaning products, soap and sanitiser, or with financial support to enable them to access these essentials. It is difficult to conceive of any provision which is more fundamental to public health during the pandemic. The Home Office must immediately take steps to ensure these essentials are provided to all service users, and accommodation providers must urgently put in place measures to enable greater social distancing and effective hygiene practices in all shared facilities.
The risks posed to vulnerable individuals by Covid-19 make more urgent the necessity of a complete end to room sharing by unrelated adults. In 2018, our predecessor Committee recommended that room sharing should be phased out across the whole estate and we are extremely disappointed that the Home Office did not take the opportunity of contract replacement in 2019 to make this change in full. Providers must move people out of shared rooms now in advance of a possible second major national outbreak.
We are very concerned about the approach taken by Mears Group during and after lockdown to moving large numbers of asylum seekers between different kinds of accommodation without ensuring proper support was available for them and without informing or consulting the local authorities in which accommodation was located. It is essential that lessons are learned and that clear policies are put in place to ensure effective communication between providers and local authorities in the event of further outbreaks in asylum accommodation, and in respect of the dispersal of service users from one area to another.
The substantial reduction in the number of individuals detained in IRCs since the beginning of the lockdown was a sensible response to Covid-19 and will have helped prevent infections. It is however troubling that nearly 40% of those remaining in immigration detention should have been categorised as meeting Levels 2 or 3 of the Adults at Risk policy indicating significant vulnerability and, potentially, that they are at high risk from Covid-19.
Some of the temporary measures introduced by the Government in response to Covid-19 hold open the prospect of future improvements in the operation of both the asylum and immigration removal processes. Among these, the decision to extend asylum support for refugees until their first welfare benefit payment is received was a simple and sensible as well as a compassionate measure and should be made permanent. Within the immigration removal process, the decision to remove from immigration detention people who did not need to be there, who were not a danger to the public, and who had no prospect of imminent removal was equally sensible.
As national lockdown restrictions are eased, the Government needs to work closely with stakeholders across both the asylum accommodation and immigration detention sectors to ensure a smooth transition out of lockdown. The Government and providers of both types of institutional accommodation must also be alert to new concerns about protecting people in the event of a second wave of Covid-19.
Published: 28 July 2020