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Diphtheria risk for public ‘very low’ despite rise in asylum seeker cases

The Health Secretary has insisted the risk of the public getting diphtheria is ‘very low’ (Gareth Fuller/PA)
The Health Secretary has insisted the risk of the public getting diphtheria is ‘very low’ (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Health Secretary Steve Barclay has insisted the risk of the public getting diphtheria is “very low” despite a rise in the number of infections being recorded among asylum seekers.

Mr Barclay said hundreds of migrants were vaccinated against the highly-contagious disease before being moved out of the Manston processing centre in Kent to hotels around the country, but stressed the situation was being monitored “closely”.

It comes as Home Secretary Suella Braverman faced criticism about overcrowding and outbreaks of disease at Manston, and the Home Office said a man held there may have died from a diphtheria infection.

The site was cleared last week, with all migrants moved into hotels, but Channel crossings resumed on Monday as bad weather cleared.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said there had been an “increase” in cases of diphtheria reported among asylum seekers arriving in the UK.

By November 25 there had been 50 cases identified among migrants who had arrived in England this year. The figure stood at 39 on November 10.

The latest UKHSA report said 38 of the cases have been reported in the South East, as well as fewer than five in each of the following areas: London; West Midlands; South West; North East and the North West.

Mr Barclay, during a visit to the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, said: “We vaccinated a range of people at Manston before they were moved, so that was part of the targeted action that UKHSA put in place.

“Clearly within the population as a whole it’s very low risk, because there’s very high uptake of vaccinations within the local population, but we’re monitoring it closely and that’s why so many people were vaccinated – 500 were vaccinated before they left Manston.”

Asked about the risk to the general public, he added: “The risk is very low, partly because there is very high uptake of vaccination within the British public in the first place.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

“Also, we had a targeted action of vaccinations at Manston and so 500 people were vaccinated before they actually left Manston, and it’s something that UKHSA are monitoring extremely closely.”

Some public health experts raised concerns about the spread of the disease as migrants were moved to hotels.

The infection affects the nose, throat and sometimes skin. It can be fatal if not treated quickly but the NHS says it is rare in the UK and can be treated with antibiotics and other medicines.

A man held at Manston died in hospital on November 19 after crossing the Channel seven days earlier, Government officials said.

Although initial tests came back negative, a follow-up PCR test indicated “diphtheria may be the cause of the illness”.

Dozens of asylum seekers who had contracted the disease were infected before they arrived in the UK, Transport Secretary Mark Harper said on Sunday.

Migrant Channel crossing incidents
More migrants arrived in Kent on Monday (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Health officials believe the timings of testing and the onset of symptoms indicate all cases were caught abroad, but they have not been able to rule out transmission in migrant centres.

Asked if councils taking in migrants from Manston have been warned about the risks of the highly-contagious disease, Downing Street said the Government is “working with local councils”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “We take the safety and welfare of people accommodated at these sites very seriously.

“We’re working closely with the UK Health Security Agency and other health professionals and indeed councils to make sure all medical guidance and the robust protocols are followed and that we have contingency plans.”

The Ministry of Defence recorded 36 people arriving in one boat on Saturday, taking the provisional total for the year so far to 42,190.

When asked the latest number of migrants at Manston, the spokesman did not know a figure but said the site was “significantly below capacity”.