Calls are being made for all prisoners and prison staff to be vaccinated immediately as Covid-19 cases surged by 50% in a month. Some 24 prisoners in December died either having tested positive or where there was a clinical assessment that the virus was a contributory factor in their deaths, bringing the total number of deaths in prisons to 71.
According to the Ministry of Justice’s weekly statistics, in the last week, 47 sites have reported positive COVID-19 results and 296 service users have tested positive for COVID-19. Around 2,400 prisoners have tested positive since the start of December, bringing the number of positive cases since the start of the pandemic to a total of 4,800, a rise of about 70% a month.
David Lammy MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, said: ‘It is frightening that the government has lost control of the virus in prisons. More staff and inmates will die if Ministers do not get control of this pandemic. Outbreaks in prisons can also pump the virus outside of their walls, overwhelming local hospitals and infecting the rest of the community.’
Earlier this week during a session of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, MP Zarah Sultana called prisons ‘a high-risk setting for transmission, as well as hospitals, nursing homes and schools’. Addressing the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, she said that there would be ‘considerable challenges if there was an outbreak in this setting, and vaccinating detainees is both good for public health and a humane approach to a completely disenfranchised population’. ‘Has the government considered prioritising vaccinating detainees, as well as those who work in prisons?’ she asked.
There are no plans to do so. Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, called the failure to vaccinate prisoners ‘short-sighted’ and ‘elevates the risk of wider community infection and reinfection’. ‘Every week, thousands of potential COVID-19 spreaders go in and out of prisons,’ he said. ‘Staff go to and from work. Hundreds of new prisoners arrive, hundreds at the end of their sentence are released.’ He quoted public health expert Richard Coker calling prisons ‘epidemiological pumps’ (here).
Professor Seena Fazel, of the University of Oxford, also argues that people in prison should be ‘among the first groups to receive any COVID-19 vaccine to protect against infection and to prevent further spread of the disease’. Garside argues that vaccinating the entire prison population and all prison staff in a matter of weeks would be ‘relatively easy to do’. ‘There are around 100,000 prisoners and prison staff across England and Wales. Last week the NHS delivered more than one million vaccines,’ he added.
Following the national lockdown, prison social visits have been suspended in England, except on exceptional compassionate grounds which should be agreed upon in advance with the prison. Visits to children in the Youth Custody Estate (YCS) are allowed to continue.
A mass testing program of all prisoners in 28 prisons was launched in July to help understand the spread of the disease in jails, covering a fifth of the prison population. The Ministry of Justice also said that they are routinely testing all offenders who arrive from the courts as well and frontline staff as those who transfer across the prison estate.
Prisons were placed under a highly restrictive regime during spring with people being held in cells for up to 23 and a half hours a day, as well as the suspension of family visits since March. This has slowly but not completely unwound across the summer and autumn.