Asylum seekers ‘caught diphtheria overseas’ despite overcrowding, says minister

Asylum seekers who have caught diphtheria had the disease before arriving in the UK, Mark Harper has claimed. Credit: PA

The dozens of asylum seekers who caught diphtheria had the highly-contagious disease before arriving in the UK, a Cabinet minister has claimed after one man died at the Manston processing centre.

The infections present an “extremely low risk” to the wider public, Transport Secretary Mark Harper insisted, despite migrants being moved from crowded facilities to hotels around the country.

He defended the government’s handling of people who have crossed the Channel in small boats, ahead of officials being expected to confirm that the number of infections has risen to about 50.

The Home Office said the death of a man, held potentially unlawfully at the Manston centre in Kent for a week, may have been from a diphtheria infection.

Mr Harper told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “On the diphtheria issue, there’s extremely low risk to the wider community, that’s a disease which of course the vaccination for which is in the standard childhood vaccination package.

“We take the welfare of people in our care very seriously. My understanding is those cases were people who had that disease before they came to the United Kingdom.”

He insisted the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is working “very closely” with the NHS “to make sure we look after the people who have been identified with diphtheria to make sure they get the treatment and the care they need”.

The man held at Manston died in hospital on November 19. He is believed to have entered the UK on a small boat seven days earlier.

Diphtheria cases among asylum seekers has been a big issue at the Manston processing centre in Kent. Credit: PA Images

As of November 10, the UKHSA had identified 39 diphtheria cases in asylum seekers in England in 2022. But on Monday, it is understood the figure will rise to around 50.

Initial tests on the man at a hospital near the centre, where Home Secretary Suella Braverman has faced criticism about overcrowding and outbreaks of disease, came back negative.

The government said on Saturday that a follow-up PCR test indicated that “diphtheria may be the cause of the illness”.

Public health officials have raised concerns about the spread of the highly-contagious disease as people were moved from the facility to hotels.

According to the Sunday Times, Jim McManus, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said this situation "could and should have been prevented".

A government spokeswoman said: “Our thoughts remain with the family of the man who has died and all those affected by this loss.

“Initial test results processed by a local hospital for an infectious disease were negative, but a follow-up PCR test was positive, indicating that diphtheria may be the cause of the illness. The coroner will conclude in due course.

“We take the safety and welfare of those in our care extremely seriously and are taking all of the necessary steps following these results.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has faced criticism about overcrowding and outbreaks of disease at the Manston centre Credit: PA

Diphtheria vaccinations will be offered to any new arrivals at Manston, the spokeswoman said, though the facility is understood to be currently empty.

A post-mortem examination and a coroner’s investigation are ongoing.

Diphtheria is a highly contagious infection affecting the nose, throat and sometimes skin. The NHS says it is rare in the UK and can be treated with antibiotics and other medicines.

At one point, as many as 4,000 people were being detained at Manston, which is designed to hold just 1,600, but on Tuesday government sources said the site had been emptied.

New arrivals were expected to be taken to the centre, which is designed for holding people for short periods during security and identity checks before being moved to accommodation.

But some people have been held for far longer periods due to a lack of alternative accommodation.

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

The UKHSA warned that accommodation settings should be considered “high-risk for infectious diseases”.

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Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, called for clarity from Ms Braverman.

She said: “The Home Secretary needs to urgently confirm whether she has made sure everyone who was at Manston has now been screened or vaccinated for Diphtheria, whether local councils and public health teams have been informed of every possible local case so they can follow up, and if not why not?

"Home Office ministers have failed to clear the asylum backlog and failed to plan or work with local councils. Suella Braverman ignored both serious health advice and repeated legal warnings about Manston. She failed to act.

"She now needs to make sure proper public health arrangements are in place, get the backlog cleared and explain why she did not act sooner to avoid this chaos."