In this case unusually, the High Court has issued a judgment following an application for an interim order. The matter concerns the accommodation of asylum-seekers who display Covid-19 symptoms, who bears the responsibility for accommodating asylum-seekers who are symptomatic, and the communication of policy and practice in this area.
The background to the case is that AQS is an asylum-seeker in his early twenties who has yet to receive a decision on his claim. On making his asylum claim he applied for asylum support as he had no income, savings or housing and was found to be eligible for support under s95 Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. He was placed in accommodation in Harrow, Middlesex. He reports symptoms of mental illness as a result of his experiences in his home country but has yet to access treatment.
While in asylum accommodation, he was attacked by a fellow resident and suffered injuries to his face and body. The police arrested the other party but he was later released. AQS was fearful of staying in the accommodation and requested a transfer. Migrant Help, who have the contract to provide asylum support initially refused to rehouse AQS but following an application for judicial review, provided AQS with alternative accommodation.
It is within this context that the current litigation arises. AQS was fearful of sharing accommodation but was required to share a room with another individual who started to display symptoms of Covid-19. AQS raised concerns with the accommodation provider who moved the other person elsewhere but within a day or so, AQS himself also became unwell with symptoms of Covid-19. He expressed his distress that he had been exposed again to harm to the accommodation provider, the argument escalated and property was damaged. The police were called and evicted AQS from the property. Both the police and the accommodation provider were aware that AQS was conspicuously unwell. He had not been served with any official eviction notice.
There followed a period of several days in which AQS’s support worker and legal representatives attempted to obtain alternative accommodation for the Claimant but were variously told that AQS must self-isolate but could not be provided with s95 accommodation as he was symptomatic and should contact NHS 111. NHS 111 were firmly of the view that AQS should be accommodated by Migrant Help. Judicial proceedings together with an application for interim relief were issued and an order made by Knowles J on Friday 27 March 2020 that the Home Office must provide the Claimant with suitable single person accommodation under s95 by the following evening. There then followed a day of telephoning and chasing. The Home Office confirmed that they would provide isolated accommodation but could not provide transport, as the Claimant was considered too unwell to be transported by their service. He was therefore required to make his own way there on public transport, with the consequent risks, or wait until the following morning, with the risk of being street homeless overnight.
Time for service of the Acknowledgement of Service was abridged. The SSHD denied that there had been a policy to refuse asylum support accommodation to person with coronavirus symptoms. She considered that AQS may have been unilaterally evicted by the accommodation provider. She admitted that there had initially been confusion about the process for accommodating or re-accommodating symptomatic individuals in s95 accommodation. She stated that the position that they should follow Public Health England’s advice on self-isolation had moved on.
23. The Secretary of State advised that she had made urgent enquiry as to whether MHL was telling people that if they were Covid-19 symptomatic they could not be accommodated. The result of that enquiry was stated as follows in her Summary Grounds:
“The response received was to the effect that there had been a bit of confusion last week about whether persons with symptoms should ring 111 for accommodation (instead of seeking asylum accommodation); but that this has since been clarified, and all staff have been reminded of the correct position…which is that the Secretary of State is continuing to accept applications for accommodation and support and provide the same for those who are eligible. It is obviously unfortunate that the wrong information was given, but this has been (and remains) a fast moving situation, and that error has been identified and corrected.”
The judge was clear that it is the SSHD who is responsible for the clear communication of policy and information.
22. It is, however, appropriate to be direct about this in the present context. It is the Secretary of State who is the accommodation provider, acting through others. And when MHL conveys information it is the Secretary of State who is conveying information, through that channel.
33. There is also no question that communication, whether of measures, guidance or policy, is of crucial importance.
The judgment confirms that SSHD has procured additional accommodation specifically for persons suffering from Covid-19 to self-isolate and that no asylum-seekers will be required to leave asylum support accommodation before the end of June.
Immigration director Zofia Duszynska and trainee solicitor Susan Fellows instructed Simon Cox and Agata Patyna of Doughty Street Chambers.