Diphtheria cases rise among asylum seekers - 'This should have been prevented'

A coach carrying people to the Manston immigration holding facility in Thanet, Kent, earlier this month. (PA)
A coach carrying people to the Manston immigration holding facility in Thanet, Kent, earlier this month. (PA)

Diphtheria cases among asylum seekers who have been moved from the Manston processing centre are rising, according to reports.

There are now said to be 50 confirmed cases amid continued criticism of the government’s handling of people who have crossed the English Channel in small boats.

One leading public health official said the situation, after migrants have been moved from the Manston short-term holding centre in Kent to hotels elsewhere in the UK, has been made “far worse than it could have been”.

It comes after the Home Office said the death of a man – who had previously been held at Manston – on 19 November may have been from diphtheria, which is a highly contagious disease.

But cabinet minister Mark Harper has insisted the infections present an “extremely low risk” to the wider public, adding the asylum seekers had contracted the disease before arriving in the UK.

Watch: Death at Manston migrant facility may have been diphtheria, Home Office says

Health officials also believe, given the timings of tests and the onset of symptoms, all cases were caught abroad – but they could not rule out transmission in migrant centres.

Diphtheria is an infection that affects the nose and throat, and sometimes the skin. The NHS says “it can be a serious illness and sometimes fatal, especially in children, if it’s not treated quickly”.

The disease is rare in the UK because babies and children have been routinely vaccinated against it since the 1940s – meaning the risk remains low.

At one point, as many as 4,000 people were being detained at Manston, which is designed to hold just 1,600. There are concerns about failures to carry out tests before they were moved on.

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And Jim McManus, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, told The Sunday Times: “This situation could and should have been prevented and it is entirely arguable that the lack of information, co-ordination and engagement from the Home Office has made the situation far worse than it could have been.

“It has created additional and preventable burdens on local health systems and has put both asylum seekers and potentially hotel workers at avoidable and preventable risk."

The government has said diphtheria vaccinations will be offered to any new arrivals at Manston, although the facility is understood to be currently empty.

Dr Trish Mannes, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) director for the south-east, said: “The risk of diphtheria to the wider public remains very low, due to high uptake of the diphtheria vaccine in this country and because the infection is typically passed on through close prolonged contact with a case."

Home Secretary Suella Braverman appearing before the Commons Home Affairs Committee at the House of Commons, London, answering questions on the subject of Manston migrant processing centre. Picture date: Wednesday November 23, 2022. (Photo by House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)
Home secretary Suella Braverman answering questions about the Manston processing centre last week. (Getty Images)

With migrants having been moved from Manston to hotels around the country, health officials are advising vaccines and preventative courses of antibiotics are offered to people on arrival at their new accommodation.

Home secretary Suella Braverman is continuing to come under fire over the Home Office's handling of the migrant crisis and dire conditions at Manston, with opposition parties calling for her resignation.

The Liberal Democrats' Daisy Cooper accused the government of "callous complacency" amid the diphtheria situation as she said Braverman should go.

Braverman, however, has continued to double down on her approach, telling MPs this week: "I tell you who’s at fault. It’s very clear who’s at fault. It’s the people who are breaking our rules, coming here illegally, exploiting vulnerable people and trying to reduce the generosity of the British people. That’s who’s at fault."