Rishi Sunak is back at his desk after US holiday as he scrambles to get a grip on migrant barge shambles – with furious Tories blaming ‘dysfunctional’ Home Office for Legionella tests bungle
- All 39 asylum seekers on board were evacuated on Friday after the discovery
Rishi Sunak is back at his desk after his US holiday – and scrambling to get a grip on the migrant barge shambles.
The PM returned from California this morning and is working in Downing Street, as the row over the Bibby Stockholm continues to rage.
Furious Tories are blaming the ‘dysfunctional’ Home Office for the chaos that saw dozens of asylum seekers evacuated from the accommodation just hours after they finally boarded, when traces of Legionalla were found in the water supply.
Questions have been raised over why the tests were not completed before the individuals moved in last week. There has also been a backlash at an apparent three-day delay between Home Office staff being told of the initial results and the decision to clear the barge.
In a round of interviews this morning, Health Secretary Steve Barclay insisted that the 39 asylum seekers housed on the vessel in Dorset were evacuated ‘very quickly’ after ministers were informed of the situation on Thursday night.
However, Dorset Council had test results back on Monday, August 7, shortly after the first migrants had arrived on the barge.
The council said it informed the contractors operating the barge the same day.
Downing Street insisted the Prime Minister retained confidence in Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the work of the Home Office, with No10 also standing by the use of barges to house migrants.
But the PM’s official spokesman admitted the Government would look to ‘see if there are any lessons that can be learned’ from the Bibby Stockholm fiasco.
He also refused to say when asylum seekers would be returned to the Dorset vessel.
Rishi Sunak (pictured with his family in Santa Monica earlier this month) returned from California this morning and is working in Downing Street, as the row over the Bibby Stockholm continues to rage
A general view of the deserted Bibby Stockholm immigration barge at Portland Port, on August 12 in Portland, England. The barge’s water supply was found to contain Legionella bacteria
Migrants being brought ashore at Dover over the weekend after attempting to cross the Channel
Protestors against the Bibby Stockholm hold signs in Portland, Dorset on August 13, 2023
‘We’re not putting a timeline on that. We do expect them to be back onto the boat as soon as possible,’ the PM’s spokesman said.
‘The Home Office is awaiting the results of further tests. Once those have been completed, obviously the intention is to return people.’
No10 said the Home Office was still ‘clarifying’ when officials were made aware of issues.
Asked who made the decision to put migrants on the boat before the test results for Legionella came back, the PM’s spokesman said it was a ‘decision taken by the Home Office in conjunction, having all the relevant tests being done and making sure that the checks are in place’.
He added: ‘These are routine precautionary tests for Legionella which is why people were able to embark.’
No10 refused to comment on speculation about how many more barges might be put into use as asylum accommodation.
‘Certainly we think this remains an appropriate way to find alternative accommodation to hotels, which are costing taxpayers significant sums every single day,’ the PM’s spokesman said.
‘I’m not putting an upper limit or number on how many more may be sought. We’re in discussions and it wouldn’t be helpful for those discussions to talk publicly.’
Dorset Council said it ‘verbally’ told a Home Office official about the discovery of Legionella on board the Bibby Stockholm last Tuesday.
A spokesman for the local authority said it was the responsibility of the two barge contractors to ‘keep the Home Office informed of such matters’.
They added: ‘Decisions about who is on board the vessel are the responsibility of the barge operator and the Home Office, based on advice from partners.’
An urgent meeting was held on Thursday and the evacuation of the boat was ordered so the water system could be cleaned out.
Mr Barclay told Sky News: ‘This is a standard thing the council had done. There is no reason to suggest there were concerns. As a precaution the tests were done.
‘As soon as ministers were notified on Thursday night, there were some concerns with that, they took instant action.’
He added: ‘It may be the council notified the Home Office, that is an issue for those in the Home Office to respond to, obviously this is a Home Office lead.
‘My understanding from colleagues in the Home Office is it was notified to Home Office ministers on Thursday and they then took very quick action as a result.’
Mr Barclay said he wanted to see migrants return to the barge because hotels were costing £6million a day.
‘It is important that we both maintain safety standards but also reflect the pressure on the taxpayer position in terms of that £6million,’ he said.
Mr Barclay insisted no migrants had shown signs of illness from Legionella.
He said: ‘My understanding is that no one has. So there has been no concerns in terms of anyone that has been on the barge and all those people are being subject to health assessments.’
One former minister told MailOnline that Mr Sunak needed to get a grip on the Home Office and address concerns about the European Court of Human Rights.
‘John Reid said the Home Office was dysfunctional and it remains so,’ they said.
A Home Office spokesman said: ‘The health and welfare of asylum seekers remains of the utmost priority.
All asylum seekers accommodated on the Bibby Stockholm have been disembarked as a precaution and moved to alternative accommodation.
‘The Home Office and our contractors are following all protocol and advice from Dorset Council’s environmental health team, UK Health Security Agency and Dorset NHS who we are working closely with.’
Asylum seekers board a coach on Friday as they are taken off the Bibby Stockholm barge at Portland Port in Dorset after Legionella bacteria had been found on board
The Bibby Stockholm is a 222 bedroom, three-storey vessel, which can house up to 506 people
Ministers are hoping to house more asylum seekers in barges, offices and student accommodation blocks.
Up to ten unused student accommodation and former office blocks have been identified as potential sites.
An internal government memo has delivered a grim warning that the migrant crisis is set to last at least five more years.
The leaked assessment suggests that the Home Office intends to use old RAF bases and a prison as accommodation for at least three years – and potentially more than five.
The memo, seen by the Telegraph and dated March 24 this year, lays out how four accommodation sites can be better ‘value for money’ than hotels.
Sites at Bexhill and Wethersfield are described as providing value for money ‘across the five years planned for the sites (Bexhill would potential be used for longer)’.
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