A former military barracks being used to house asylum seekers has had at least 197 positive cases of Covid-19 this year alone, far higher than previously thought, the most senior civil servant at the Home Office has revealed.
The total number of cases at Napier barracks near Folkestone, Kent, is equal to more than 50% of its resident population at its peak of 380.
Matthew Rycroft, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, told MPs that in January there were 178 positive coronavirus cases returned at the former Ministry of Defence site, and a further 19 recorded in February.
The asylum seekers at Napier were housed in blocks of up to 28 men and there have been repeated warnings from healthcare professionals and humanitarian groups that the site was not Covid-secure.
Despite the outbreak and legal challenges to the site, the home secretary, Priti Patel, suggested the government intended to continue using former military sites as accommodation for asylum seekers.
The chair of the home affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper, struggled to contain her shock when Rycroft revealed the numbers.
“On what planet did you think in the middle of a Covid crisis it was safe or sensible to put over 20 people in a dorm so they are sleeping together in the same room with the same air overnight each night?” she asked.
Patel was asked if the department’s handling of the former Ministry of Defence (MoD) site fitted with the pledge made in the wake of the Windrush review to “see the face behind every case”.
She said: “The answer is yes, absolutely. Every single individual who comes into the care and estate of the Home Office has personalised support.”
Patel instead blamed the asylum seekers for not following social distancing rules. “People do mingle, and it is a fact when we looked at what happened at Napier people were not following the rules,” she said.
Cooper said her response was “astonishing”.
Patel and Rycroft insisted that the Home Office had been following Public Health England advice.
Last week, the high court heard that PHE advised the Home Office on 7 September last year that dormitories were not suitable accommodation during a pandemic. The judge, Martin Chamberlain, told the court: “This advice was apparently not followed.”
The Guardian understands this was based on disclosure provided to the judge by Home Office officials. A full judicial review of the use of the sites is expected in April.
Patel said: “Public Health England advice is not static.”
Asked if the military sites would be closed, Patel said: “This isn’t about closing military barracks, we should look at this within the context of the government estate and government accommodation. It’s right we look at the government estate and government accommodation as potential contingency accommodation for asylum seekers.”
Later in the hearing, Paul Lincoln, the director general of Border Force, revealed about 150 people a day are entering enforced hotel quarantine, about 1% of the 15,000 arrivals each day.