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Duncan Lewis Solicitors instructed by charity Detention Action to issue legal challenge over the Government’s failure to safeguard those held in detention from Covid-19 (20 March 2020)

Date: 20/03/2020
Duncan Lewis, Main Solicitors, Duncan Lewis Solicitors instructed by charity Detention Action to issue legal challenge over the Government’s failure to safeguard those held in detention from Covid-19

The High Court has today ordered the Government to urgently respond to the legal challenge launched by human rights charity Detention Action over the Government’s failure to safeguard those held in UK Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) from Covid-19. Duncan Lewis Solicitors have been instructed by Detention Action to bring this challenge.

The order, issued today (Thursday 19 March) by Mr Justice Swift, sets a deadline of 6pm on Friday 20 March for the Government to respond to the issues raised by the legal challenge.

It comes as Detention Action continues to hear from its anxious clients currently held across the immigration detention estate, including those with relevant underlying health issues such as diabetes, HIV and asthma, who report a lack of access to adequate healthcare; unsanitary conditions and little or no information regarding Covid-19.

Yesterday in Parliament, the Home Affairs Select Committee heard evidence on the preparation for, and response to, Covid-19 by the Home Office. The Committee heard from Lucy Moreton, Corporate Officer, Immigration Services Union, who said that “no procedures had changed” in IRCs and that “they are not testing because no testing is available.” Ms Moreton also stated that the Heathrow IRCs were currently in lockdown for “seasonal flu”.

Ms Moreton further accepted that "In light of the advice given by Foreign Secretary removal to anywhere globally is going to be problematic."

The challenge concerns the lawfulness of continued detention while global travel restrictions prevent removals from the UK, and whilst conditions in detention centres present a risk of serious harm and death as a result of a Covid-19 outbreak.

Detention Action is seeking the review and release of all those currently held under immigration powers and see an immediate halt to further detentions.

The challenge is supported by expert evidence from Prof. Coker (Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) who has advised that “it is credible and plausible that 60% of immigration detainees will soon become infected with COVID-19.” In light of this, Prof. Coker recommends that detainees should, if possible, be released.

The challenge follows reports from Detention Action clients and others held in IRCs, of widespread fear and panic amid unsanitary conditions and an almost total lack of information regarding Covid-19, both its risks and steps that can be taken to reduce its spread.

Concerns reported include:

  • Increased risk to the large cohort of detainees with serious underlying health conditions.

  • Clients receiving no tailored screening on arrival in detention centres and limited access to healthcare.

  • A client working as a detainee cleaner in the centre being left cleaning cells despite presenting with Covid-19 symptoms.

  • Clients not being provided with soap or hand sanitizer and a lack of running water.

  • The ‘catastrophic’ condition of toilets and communal showers were shared by hundreds.

The challenge is brought by Detention Action and a 60-year-old man who has been detained since last June and is currently held in Morton Hall IRC. The Claimant suffers from hypertension and is deeply concerned about his increased risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19 due to his health conditions.

Bella Sankey, Director of Detention Action, said: “The Home Office needs to show a human face: this is a public health emergency and every hour matters. The science is clear that by continuing to detain people in unsanitary conditions they risk “explosive transmission” and hundreds of lives. The world’s borders have closed and so removals are impossible – detention serves no purpose”.

Immigration detention in the UK is lawful only if there is an immediate prospect of removal from the UK. There are seven immigration detention centres across the country holding around 1500–2000 indefinitely at any one time, and around 24,000 in total per year. Conditions in IRCs are often unhygienic, as found by the Government’s own inquiry of July 2018 conducted by Stephen Shaw among many others.

Duncan Lewis Solicitors’ public law director Toufique Hossain, said: “The government cannot mete out compassion selectively if it is to be considered humane. No one should be left behind. This virus does not discriminate as to who it infects and takes from loved ones, and neither should the State. There are many in detention who are vulnerable and where removal is no longer imminent. We hope a decision on suspending further detentions, and expediting the release of such people at risk of serious illness and death, is made soon by the Home Secretary.”


Our public law director Toufique Hossain, caseworker Georgia Banks, and solicitor Philip Armitage are instructing Chris Buttler and Ayesha Christie of Matrix Chambers.

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