There have been dozens of suspected cases of the highly contagious disease reported among asylum seekers who have left the centre in Kent in recent weeks, prompting migrants to be moved to other parts of the country. Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick has now confirmed there are 50 cases reported in asylum accommodation across the UK.
He said: “50 cases of diphtheria have been reported in asylum accommodation. It’s important to emphasise that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has been clear that the risk to the wider UK population from onward transmission of diphtheria is very low, thanks in no small part to our excellent childhood immunisation programme. The UKHSA confirmed that they believe it is likely these cases were developed before they entered the UK.”
It comes after the Home Office said the death of a man at the Manston facility may have been due to an infection from the bacteria, although post-mortem examinations are still ongoing.
The government said on Saturday (26 November) that a PCR test on the man who died after being held, possibly unlawfully, at the centre for a week indicates that “diphtheria may be the cause of the illness”.
Initial tests at a hospital near the centre, where Home Secretary Suella Braverman has faced criticism about overcrowding and outbreaks of disease, had been negative. Braverman said there was “no evidence at this stage to suggest that this tragic death was caused by an infectious disease”, with the man being taken ill a day before he died.
At one point, as many as 4,000 people were being detained at the site, which is designed to hold just 1,600, but last week government sources said the site had been emptied.
New arrivals were expected to be taken to the site, which is designed for holding people for short periods during security and identity checks before they are moved to accommodation, but some people have been held for far longer due to a lack of alternative accommodation.
Public health officials have now raised concerns about the spread of the highly-contagious disease as people were moved from the facility to hotels.
Jim McManus, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, said it had “put asylum seekers and potentially hotel workers at avoidable and preventable risk” and had "created additional and preventable burdens on local health system".
He also accused the Home Office of a "lack of coordination" that has "made the situation far worse than it could be". He said: “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.
“We want to work constructively and effectively as directors of public health with the government for the good of everybody. We offered the Home Office collaboration and our efforts were rebuffed.”
Jenrick commented: “The Home Office has worked closely with the NHS and the UKHSA to identify and to isolate anyone with a diphtheria infection, including providing diphtheria vaccinations and moving confirmed cases into isolation. It’s absolutely right that we now are vigilant. Robust screening processes on arrival (in Dover), to proactively identify those with symptoms of diphtheria. Round-the-clock health facilities at Manston.”
He added that 100% of those who arrived at the facility over the weekend took up the offer of vaccination, and said that no-one presenting with symptoms will progress into the asylum accommodation system.
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Daisy Cooper said the Home Secretary “must take responsibility and resign immediately” over the “scandal”. She said: "The UK is better than this. The Conservative Government should be ashamed of their callous complacency over the health and well-being of asylum seekers coming out of Manston."
Transport Secretary Mark Harper has insisted the infections present an “extremely low risk” to the wider public despite migrants being moved to hotels around the UK and 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.
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.”
As of November 10, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) had identified 39 diphtheria cases in asylum seekers in England in 2022 but officials could not rule out the number of actual cases being higher.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper demanded that Braverman confirm whether everyone at Manston has been screened or vaccinated for diphtheria. She said: "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.”
What is diphtheria?
Diphtheria is a highly contagious infection affecting the nose, and throat and sometimes causes ulcers on the skin. It is spread by coughs and sneezes, or through close contact with someone who is infected, and in serious cases it can be fatal. It can also be spread by sharing items such as cups, cutlery, clothing or bedding with an infected person.
Babies and children in the UK are vaccinated against diphtheria, meaning cases are rare. However, the infection is potentially dangerous to migrants who come from countries where this is not the case.
As migrants are being 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”.
Dr Trish Mannes, 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.
“In order to limit the risk of diphtheria being passed on within asylum seeker settings, UKHSA continues to recommend that individuals arriving at reception centres, and who have moved on recently, are offered a diphtheria vaccine and preventative treatment.”