Home Office preparedness for COVID-19 (Coronavirus): institutional accommodation Contents

3Immigration Removal Centres


146.Six of the seven Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) on the immigration detention estate are contracted out to private outsourcing firms, G4S (Gatwick), Mitie, Serco and the GEO Group; one is managed on behalf of the Home Office by HM Prison and Probation Service.202

147.In February 2020, it was announced that management of Gatwick IRCs (Brook House and Tinsley House) would transfer from G4S to Serco from 21 May 2020. Serco reported the value of the initial eight-year contract as approximately £200m.203

148.As of 31 December 2019, there were 1,637 people in immigration detention in the UK.204 359 (22%) of these were time-served foreign national offenders (FNOs).205 Concerns were raised in evidence to the Committee about the challenges immigration detainees face when following social distancing guidelines, due to the large number of individuals in detention at the start of the government lockdown in March.206

Detention Action judicial review

149.In March 2020, the charity Detention Action took legal action against the Government, challenging the lawfulness and safety of continued immigration detention during the Covid-19 pandemic and calling for the release of all immigration detainees.207

150.The case was rejected by the High Court on 25 March.208 The Court said:

It is clear to us that the measures put in place to date by the Secretary of State are all directed to ensuring that, even in the extreme circumstances that presently prevail, the immigration detention regime will in systemic terms remain compatible with the obligation to provide safe arrangements for detention. As we have already explained, the Secretary of State is seeking to reduce the numbers of persons detained, steps are being taken to render detention safe for those who are in increased-risk groups but who cannot for reasons of public protection be released; those who are not released but who are too ill to remain in detention are to be transferred to hospital. As we see it, the measures taken by the Secretary of State address the material points raised.209

151.These Government actions as well as grants of bail reduced the immigration detention estate population considerably from over 1,500 at the start of January 2020 to 700 in late April.210 Bail for Immigration Detainees reported a 94% success rate of immigration bail for its clients between 23 March and 1 May, compared with its success rate of 59% during 2018–19.211

Immigration detention statistics

152.The Home Office reported in its Covid-19 related statistics that at the start of May 2020 there were 313 people detained under immigration powers of whom “97% were foreign national offenders (FNOs)”.212 This represents a significant fall in detainee numbers compared to 1,278 at the end of December 2019 and 555 at the end of March 2020.213

153.The Home Office also reported that 295 people were detained under immigration powers between 23 March and 30 April.214 Of these, 231 were “clandestine entrants” who were held for no more than seven days at short-term holding facilities.215

154.In oral evidence to the Committee on 7 May, Colin Dobell from Mitie told us that the current detention population in its IRCs was 20% of what it was prior to Covid-19, with around 130 detainees.216 Sarah Burnett from Serco reported that in Yarl’s Wood IRC the number of detainees was “exceptionally low” with a current population of 15 individuals.217

155.We welcome the substantial reduction in the number of individuals detained in IRCs since the beginning of the lockdown. This was a sensible response to Covid-19 and will have helped prevent infections.

Concerns and challenges posed by Covid-19

156.Similar concerns to those we heard about asylum accommodation were highlighted in evidence to us about the safety and wellbeing of individuals in immigration detention during the current pandemic.218

Social distancing

157.Written submissions raised concerns about the ability of individuals to follow social distancing rules in IRCs. Medical Justice said there were inadequate isolation facilities with limited “single person isolation rooms available in each IRC”.219 It also expressed concern about Public Health England’s advice on cohorting, which involves placing all individuals with Covid-19 symptoms in the same wing.220 Given the current lack of Covid-19 testing available to detainees, Medical Justice argued that cohorting could increase the risk of exposing symptomatic detainees to individuals who are Covid-19 positive, thus increasing their risk of additional infection with Covid-19.221

158.Angela Perfect, Covid-19 Incident Gold Commander for Border Force, told us that when symptomatic individuals are identified in IRCs they are “moved to separate areas within the estate” in accordance with “a very well-rehearsed capacity and capability to quarantine individuals in a supported way”. She added that IRCs work very closely with Public Health England and that all detainees have access to medical support, including on arrival when all detainees see a nurse within the first two hours and a doctor within a day.222

159.However Lucy Moreton, Corporate Officer for the Immigration Services Union, told us that immigration removal centres sometimes had difficulties in quarantining people.223 She said that although IRCs tried very hard to put symptomatic individuals into the same wing of the building, it was more complicated on the rare occasion when children and families are detained.224

160.In written evidence, Serco said that a current low occupancy rate was assisting social distancing, and that advice had been provided to residents.225 G4S said it had staggered mealtimes and reduced occupancy rates to minimise proximity of detainees as well as decommissioning communal seating areas.226 GEOGroup had briefed detainees on social distancing and added tape in communal areas to encourage compliance.227 In oral evidence Colin Dobell from Mitie told us that it was running Heathrow Immigration Removal Centre as a series of households with “around 20 people in each household, so they are self-contained”.228 He explained that detainees are kept in single occupancy rooms and that the IRC only receives individuals every 14 days, who are then isolated in a unit until they are “all clear” and then dispersed into the centre.229 Sarah Burnett from Serco confirmed that it was practising the same strategy.230

Vulnerable Adults at Risk in detention

161.Our predecessors’ report on immigration detention in 2019 raised concerns about the effectiveness of the Home Office’s Adults at Risk (AAR) policy in identifying, reviewing and managing vulnerable individuals in detention.231 The report highlighted the increased burden of evidence on the individual to demonstrate vulnerability, and the increased threshold to securing release once vulnerability has been established.232 The Committee called for an urgent review of the AAR policy guidance with “a presumption not to detain unless there are exceptional circumstances”.233

162.Evidence we received raised concerns about how the AAR policy was being applied during the pandemic and whether detainees who fall within the Public Health England-identified increased-risk groups were being effectively recognised under the policy.234 Richard Coker, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has stated that individuals in detention are at greater risk of exposure to and deterioration resulting from Covid-19.235 Medical Justice reported that it was continuing to see detainees with Covid-19 comorbidities in detention, with some providers suggesting that such individuals “self-isolate in their rooms”.236

163.In its consideration of Detention Action’s legal challenge, the High Court concluded that the witness statements presented by Detention Action in support of its case were not “sufficient to make the case that immigration detention, in the context of the present pandemic, is systematically unable to comply with the standards required by EHRC article 2 (risk of death) or Article 3 (inhumane treatment)”.237 It recorded various Home Office actions to protect detainees. One of these was to reduce the number of individuals detained, specifically by applying the Adults at Risk policy “to detainees who are in any of the PHE-identified increased-risk groups”.238 Medical Justice, however, told us that it was not aware of any published Home Office guidance which outlined how “extremely vulnerable detainees” under PHE guidance were being identified and protected under the AAR policy.239

164.IRC providers’ evidence to us indicated that their interpretation of the AAR policy, and their approach to protecting PHE-identified increased-risk groups, differs substantially. Serco, which manages Yarl’s Wood IRC, told us that its healthcare partner has “created and run reports” to identify detainees who were potentially ‘at risk’ [ … ] due to any comorbidities” and that those on the list were placed on a Supported Living Plan.240 It said that vulnerable detainees have been provided with single occupancy rooms and take meals in their rooms.241 Serco also told us that it has issued personal protective equipment (PPE) to vulnerable detainees, but it is unclear exactly what items of PPE have been provided. G4S said that it has offered accommodation on a separate wing to its vulnerable detainees “where they would only cohort with other vulnerable detainees” all of whom have a care plan in place.242 GEO Group told us that they are discussing all identified adults at risk in weekly meetings with the Home Office and are using the Rule 35 process “where required to in order to have vulnerable detainees released”.243

165.In written evidence Mitie Care & Custody, which manages Heathrow IRC told us that “all vulnerable detainees considered to be in the high-risk group [by the commissioned healthcare provider] have been considered for early release by the Home Office”.244 It added that detainees who do not meet the criteria for release have been moved into isolation where they have single rooms with private showers, and access to activities and outside space.245 In supplementary evidence Medical Justice told the Committee that it was important to recognise that, while the use of single rooms might help to contain the spread of infection, it could potentially introduce other risks for many detainees including “social isolation, risk of suicide and self-harming and increased anxiety”.246 Bella Sankey told us of the impact of Covid-19 concerns upon detainees’ mental health, claiming that “very many people are incredibly fearful for their health and for their lives”.247

166.In oral evidence on 7 May Tim Buley QC, from Landmark Chambers, said that the Adults at Risk policy is unclear and consequently leaves room for “mechanical decision making” and for “lip service to be paid to the policy in a way that does not really achieve its stated aim, which is to ensure that fewer vulnerable people are detained”.248 He added that a policy had been “promulgated” specifying that those individuals “at high risk from Covid-19” should be considered at level 3 under the AAR policy, which effectively means “they should not be detained”.249 However, based on his experience of “a few cases” it was not apparent to him that this information had been disseminated to caseworkers.250 In a similar vein, Rory Dunlop QC, from 39 Essex Chambers, told us that problems occur when policies are relied on as a way of shaping the “significant” and “broad” statutory power to detain an individual.251 He asserted that this is because policies are not usually drafted “with the clarity and precision of statutes or statutory instruments”.252 He added that people’s attempts to interpret immigration detention policies had created much uncertainty and litigation over the years.253

167.On 5 June, more than two months after the announcement of the lockdown restrictions, the Home Office published statutory guidance for Home Office IRC staff outlining the principles for managing Covid-19 in places of detention.254 The guidance states that all individuals “falling within the PHE Vulnerabilities lists should be considered as being AAR Level 3 cases for the purposes of assessing detention”.255

168.Government guidance which came into force on 5 May 2020, although it was not published until 5 June, confirmed that individuals at high risk of contracting Covid-19 should be treated as AAR Level 3 cases. This clarification, which confirms the commitment made by the Home Office to the High Court on 26 March, is welcome although earlier publication would have provided greater clarity and reassurance. Evidence we received from the IRC providers shortly after this guidance came into effect indicated inconsistencies in their implementation of the AAR policy, specifically as it relates to those highly vulnerable detainees at greater risk of becoming ill from Covid-19. This is deeply concerning, and reflects concerns raised in evidence to us about officials’ attempts to interpret broadly drafted immigration detention policies, and the consequent litigation and uncertainty that can ensue.

Numbers of Adults at Risk in detention

169.In oral evidence, Mitie told us that it had no adults at risk in its IRCs but that it had around 70 detainees who were “particularly vulnerable” in relation to Covid-19.256 In subsequent written evidence, Mitie clarified that it had a total of “70 detainees considered vulnerable including AAR and “high” or “at risk” categories” with 35 detainees at level 2 of the AAR and 21 at level 3.”257 It added that any individuals considered to be potentially “high risk” or “at risk” due to Covid-19, such as detainees over the age of 70 or those with an underlying medical condition, are recorded on arrival at the IRC.258 In written evidence Serco told us that six of its residents at Yarl’s Wood IRC were currently “classed as adults at risk level 2” with none at level 3. In addition it reported that two of its residents are on supported living plans “due to being at increased risk of COVID-19 due to their current medical issues”.259

170.On 12 May, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons reported findings from short scrutiny visits to four IRCs: Harmondsworth, Brook House, Morton Hall and Yarl’s Wood.260 The report noted that all IRCs had “dramatically reduced their populations since March 2020” and that it was “likely that the releases had helped to prevent the spread of the virus” in these IRCs. However the scrutiny visits reported that “nearly 40%” of detainees were identified as adults at risk, many of whom “met the criteria for shielding”. The report noted that the Home Office had assessed 39% of detainees to be at Levels 2 or 3 of the AAR policy. In light of this high percentage of adults at risk in detention, the Inspectorate was “pleased to find” that there were processes in place to support and review “the detention of the most vulnerable detainees” and that “levels of self-harm were generally low”.261

171.It is 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. Government guidance on the operation of the adults at risk policy indicates that evidence meeting the standard for Level 2 in the AAR policy “should normally be accepted and consideration given as to how this may be impacted by detention”, while evidence at Level 3 “stating that the individual is at risk and that a period of detention would be likely to cause harm … should be afforded significant weight… and any detention reviewed in light of the accepted evidence”.262 On this basis, serious consideration must be given to moving these individuals back into the community. However, we recognise that, as the Home Office has stated, 97% of those remaining in immigration detention are foreign national offenders and that therefore where it is not possible to remove them from detention all possible precautions must be given to enable detainees to self-isolate safely within IRCs.

Testing in IRCs

172.Some of the evidence we received suggested a lack of clarity and transparency about what Public Health England advice was being given to the Home Office and its IRC contractors in relation to detainees’ access to Covid-19 testing early in the pandemic.263

173.Written evidence from the British Medical Association (BMA) raised concerns regarding health conditions and testing within IRCs, highlighting that they are “challenging environments for healthcare workers to treat people in at the best of times, with workforce shortages and often dated or under-resourced facilities”.264 It cautioned that “any further reductions” to the medical workforce in IRCs could be “catastrophic to the care that is available”.265

174.The BMA also criticised current practice in IRCs, which it reported was then to test groups of patients for Covid-19 only once a critical mass is reached.266 It said that individuals should be tested as soon as they were placed in isolation so they could come out earlier than the recommended 7 or 14 days if they tested negative.267

175.Colin Dobell from Mitie told us on 7 May that there was no testing policy in place for detainees and that he had written to the Home Office to request that was made “available as a matter of routine for detainees”.268 He added that there had been no symptomatic detainees in any of Mitie’s IRC provision.269 Similarly Sarah Burnett from Serco reported on 7 May that its testing policy for detainees had “evolved over time”, noting that PHE and Northamptonshire Heath Foundation Trust identified which individuals to test.270 She added that three detainees had been tested, with one testing positive.271 In written evidence G4S told us that there was “no availability to test detainees onsite”. Where a detainee was symptomatic, Public Health England would advise if testing was required and, if so, arrange for testing to be done.272

176.Guidance now available on the government website for preventing and controlling outbreaks of Covid-19 in places of detention advises that where an individual presents as symptomatic for Covid-19 “arrangements should be made to have them tested for the infection immediately”.273 It also notes that “testing (swabbing) of some or all … detainees and staff may be necessary when an outbreak has been declared, whether they are symptomatic or not.” An outbreak control team led by a PHE consultant in health protection would risk assess the situation and advise on an appropriate testing strategy; the guidance advises that the outbreak should also be reported to the Home Office by telephone and in writing.274

177.The published guidance does not however appear to cover circumstances where an individual received at an IRC is not symptomatic, but may be considered high risk: for example, the Committee has been told that clandestine entrants who have crossed the Channel may be at risk of contracting Covid-19 owing to the nature of the crossing and the impossibility of social distancing on small boats.275 Guidance should be provided for custodial and detention staff on the approach to be taken where an individual is considered to be at high risk of having contracted Covid-19, but is not symptomatic at the point of reception.

Protection for IRC staff

178.In written evidence, Serco told us that staff at IRCs are listed as key workers and that those staff who can work at home are allowed to do so. It said that any staff workers in an isolation area “must wear mandatory PPE” including gloves, face masks and aprons. Serco noted that it was not easy to forecast the levels of PPE required given the “continuing changes in the pandemic dynamic and the resident numbers”.276

179.Mitie told us that “a large number of existing hand washing facilities with hot water, soap and paper towels are readily available to staff and detainees” and that the number of hand sanitation points had been increased in its centres. PPE issued to staff included anti-bacterial sprays, FFP3 surgical face masks, anti-splashback face masks with eye guards, disposable gloves, disposable full-body suits and shoe covers. PPE supply was “audited daily” and quantities reported to senior management. Working from home was encouraged where possible.277


180.On 22 March, the BBC reported that a detainee who has a role cleaning at Harmondsworth IRC “was aware of a cell not being cleaned after a man with symptoms was moved elsewhere to be quarantined and a new detainee was moved in”.278 The detainee was quoted saying: “The way we’re being treated is disgusting. People are moving in and out of cells … without [the cells] being cleaned”. The Home Office told the BBC that “bedrooms are deep-cleaned after a detainee has left isolation and handwashing facilities are available in all immigration removal centres”.279

181.We wrote to IRC providers on 23 March asking for written evidence, including on cleaning. Serco replied on 7 April that all cleaning was now being undertaken by housekeeping staff rather than detainees and that cleaning materials were supplied daily. Additional cleaning had been implemented, including disinfecting keys, sanitising floors with chlorine tablets, and sanitising door handles.280 Mitie reported that the frequency of cleaning had increased, with communal resources (such as exercise bikes or Kindles) being cleaned particularly frequently to allow their continuing use.281 Mitie noted that they were “keen for detainees to remain engaged” with cleaning work, but “where this becomes impractical our professional cleaning team will complete the work”.282 GEOGroup had stopped detainees from undertaking paid work to clean communal areas but said it was paying them the same rate to clean their own rooms.283 G4S still allowed detainees to undertaking cleaning as a paid activity, under the supervision of the appointed subcontractor, and using bleach-based products.284

Communication and guidance

182.As outlined in chapter one of this report, concerns have been voiced about a lack of public information on the safe management of asylum accommodation during the pandemic.285 Similarly, we heard concerns that there was a lack of detailed and targeted Public Health England advice on how to safeguard immigration detainees effectively during the pandemic.286 During the lockdown period, the Government has published two policy guidance documents which directly address measures to safeguard individuals in immigration removal centres. These are ‘COVID-19: prisons and other prescribed places of detention guidance’, published by the Ministry of Justice and Public Health England and Home Office guidance, ‘Detention Considerations: COVID-19’.287 The website advises that both documents are being kept under review.

183.Detention Action said that the Covid-19 detention guidance (as updated on 20 May) reflected a “business as usual response” which failed “to adequately address the realities of the pandemic and the risks to which detainees are being exposed”.288 It listed a number of areas in which there were gaps in information including on testing, social distancing, and the application of the AAR policy to detainees at higher risk of contracting the virus.289 In a similar vein Medical Justice criticised the lack of detail in the guidance and questioned why social distancing was not mentioned despite it being “a major component of the various providers’ policy inside of detention”.290 The key purpose of the additional ‘Detention considerations’ guidance published by the Home Office on 8 June was to provide information on how the AAR policy should be applied to detainees at higher risk of becoming ill from Covid-19, in line with its statutory guidance published on 5 June.291 At 17 July social distancing is referred to in the MOJ/PHE detention guidance, but without specific consideration of the difficulties individuals may face when attempting to distance in institutional accommodation.

184.In addition to criticism about the sparseness of Government guidance, concern was also raised about Home Office communication to key stakeholders. The Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees told us that it was essential that it received accurate information from the Home Office and its contractors about their response to the pandemic, and any updates as things changed, so that it could provide tailored support to detainees.292 It expressed deep frustration that the communication from the Home Office and its contractors had been “slow, unresponsive, and largely ineffective” despite the association having raised concerns with the Home Office on several occasions about quarantining, testing and other issues relevant to immigration detainees.293

185.We have previously noted (see paragraph 168) that earlier publication of Government guidance on how the AAR policy should be applied to detainees at higher risk of becoming ill from Covid-19 would have provided greater clarity and reassurance to both stakeholders supporting vulnerable detainees and to those individuals themselves. The Home Office and its providers must communicate timely and accurate information to NGOs as well as to service providers working to support people in immigration detention.

204 Gov.uk, ‘Returns and detention datasets’, 21 May 2020, Det_DO2

205 Gov.uk, ‘Returns and detention datasets’, 21 May 2020, Det_DO2

206 British Medical Association (COR0005); Medical Justice (COR0013); Bail for Immigration Detainees (COR0019); Freed Voices (COR0051); Dr Hilary Pickles and Professor Richard Coker (COR0036); Detention Action (COR0071)

207 Detention Action (COR0071)

211 Bail for Immigration Detainees, ‘New research into detention decision-making during COVID-19 pandemic’, May 2020

213 These figures exclude ex foreign national offenders; Home Office, ‘Immigration statistics data tables, year ending March 2020’, Det_D02

215 Home Office, Statistics relating to COVID-19 and the immigration system, May 2020, 28 May 2020, p10; The Home Office’s statistical report also highlighted that the figure of 295 does not include transfers from prisons to immigration removal centres.

218 British Medical Association (COR0005); Medical Justice (COR0013); Bail for Immigration Detainees (COR0019); Freed Voices (COR0051); Dr Hilary Pickles and Professor Richard Coker (COR0036); Detention Action (COR0071)

219 Medical Justice (COR0013)

221 Medical Justice (COR0013)

225 Serco (COR0032)

226 G4S (COR0043)

227 G4S (COR0043)

231 Home Affairs Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Immigration detention, HC 913, 21 March 2019. Adults at risk include those who have serious physical or mental health conditions or illnesses and those aged 70 or over.

232 Home Affairs Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Immigration detention, HC 913, 21 March 2019

233 Home Affairs Committee, Fourteenth Report of Session 2017–19, Immigration detention, HC 913, 21 March 2019, para 128

234 Medical Justice (COR0117)

236 Medical Justice (COR0117)

239 Medical Justice (COR0013)

240 Serco (COR0032)

241 Serco (COR0032)

242 G4S (COR0043)

243 GEOGroup (COR0033)

244 Mitie Care & Custody (COR0034)

245 Mitie Care & Custody (COR0034)

246 Medical Justice (COR0117)

257 Mitie Care & Custody (COR0137); Under the Home Office’s Adults at Risk in Detention policy, a detainee is assessed at Level 1 where a vulnerability is self-declared. Level 2 applies where there is professional or other evidence of the vulnerability. Level 3 is the highest level of risk.

258 Mitie Care & Custody (COR0137)

259 Serco (COR0162)

260 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Report on short scrutiny visits to immigration removal centres, 12 May 2020; A short scrutiny visit is a new type of HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMI Prisons) visit in which three similar establishments (for example, young offender institutions or local prisons) are visited. The aim of these visits is not to report on how an establishment meets HMI Prisons’ Expectations, as in a regular full inspection, but to give a snapshot of how it is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and to share any positive practice found.

261 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Report on short scrutiny visits to immigration removal centres, 12 May 2020

262 Home Office, Adults at risk in immigration detention, Version 5.0, 6 March 2019, p13

264 British Medical Association (COR0005)

265 British Medical Association (COR0005)

266 British Medical Association (COR0005)

267 British Medical Association (COR0005)

272 G4S (COR0043)

275 Q64, 18 March 2020

276 Serco (COR0032)

277 Mitie Care & Custody (COR0034)

280 Serco (COR0032)

281 Mitie Care & Custody (COR0034)

282 Mitie Care & Custody (COR0034)

283 GEOGroup (COR0033); G4S (COR0043)

284 G4S (COR0043)

285 See ‘Communication and guidance

286 Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (COR0116); Medical Justice (COR0013); Detention Action (COR0071)

288 Detention Action (COR0071)

289 Detention Action (COR0071)

290 Medical Justice (COR0117)

292 Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (COR0116)

293 Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (COR0116)

Published: 28 July 2020