Healthcare professionals have called for former army barracks being used to house asylum seekers to be closed over concerns about the residents’ wellbeing.
Medical staff have written to the home secretary, Priti Patel, with a damning assessment, to raise concerns about the sites at Napier barracks in Kent and Penally barracks in Pembrokeshire, which between them are holding more than 600 men.
The group, represented by Doctors of the World, a human rights organisation, believe the sites are unsuitable due to the lack of access to adequate and appropriate healthcare services and risks from a lack of compliance with Covid-19 regulations.
They also fear the military environment will trigger further trauma for the men, many of whom will have fled conflict, militia and may have been detained in similar environments in their home countries.
“Although these sites are not classified as detention centres, the sites bear many of the hallmarks of detention and operate like an open prison,” the letter says.
The action from the healthcare professionals comes after the Guardian revealed the Home Office is attempting to gag charity workers and community volunteers with a confidentiality agreement, following reports of dire conditions at the site.
One resident was taken to hospital after contracting coronavirus while staying at the barracks.
Dr Jill O’Leary, who along with other clinicians and lawyers has been meeting remotely with volunteers, has been working to improve health and vulnerability screening assessments for residents.
“I assessed a young man from Yemen who had been imprisoned and tortured by the state. He travelled from Yemen across Europe before arriving in the UK to seek asylum,” O’Leary told the Guardian.
“His solicitor contacted me due to concerns about his deteriorating mental health since being moved to the barracks. The military environment causes him to experience flashbacks to his time spent in prison, and he suffered insomnia as well as severe anxiety as a consequence.
“He had physical health needs that were not being met in this accommodation including lack of access to pain relief as he suffered chronic pain as a result of his torture. It was clear that his mental and physical health were deteriorating rapidly due to being in the barracks and he was thankfully relocated once a letter of clinical concern had been written.”
O’Leary, lead doctor for the medical advisory advice at the Helen Bamber Foundation, which along with Freedom from Torture and Doctors of the World is providing support to residents, said she remained concerned about others in the camps.
The letter to the home secretary, which is also signed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Faculty of Public Health, warns lack of capacity locally means the residents of the sites are not seeing a GP and are dependent on outreach support from a nurse and paramedics.
The letter says without access to a GP, residents are at risk of being cut out of the NHS completely.
Healthcare screening services are not in place and there are no specialist trauma-focused therapeutic services, the letter adds.
On Tuesday, Paul Morrison, immigration services director at Mitie Care and Custody, told MPs he had urged the Home Office to open a new, large short-term holding facility in Kent to replace current facilities, which inspectors have condemned.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Asylum seekers are staying in safe, Covid-compliant conditions, in line with the law and social distancing requirements.
“We take the wellbeing of asylum seekers extremely seriously and have provided guidance in relation to self-isolation, social distancing and hygiene.”