Fresh cases of diphtheria have been reported among asylum seekers in England for the first time since January, new figures show.
Three cases of the bacterial infection were reported in August, taking the total number of cases for 2023 to 77 – up from 74 previously. No further cases were recorded between February and July.
Diphtheria is a highly contagious infection caused by bacteria called Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which produces a toxin that makes people ill.
The data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) will pile further pressure on the government after it was forced to remove asylum seekers off the Bibby Stockholm barge last month following an outbreak of Legionella bacteria.
Taking questions in the House of Commons today, immigration minister Robert Jenrick confirmed it could be weeks before people are moved back on board the controversial vessel that is docked in Dorset.
Mr Jenrick told MPs people would be moved back to the barge “as soon as possible”, providing safety checks showed no “cause for concern”, which he said he expects to take place “within weeks”.
The ongoing delay to the Bibby Stockholm and the confirmation of new diphtheria cases will come as a blow to Rishi Sunak after small boats crossed the Channel for a fourth day in a row.
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More than 800 migrants crossed the English Channel on Saturday – the highest number on a single day so far this year – while 113 arrived on Sunday and 286 on Monday.
Since the start of September, 1,271 migrants have been detected crossing the Channel, according to Home Office figures, while the provisional total for the year so far stands at 21,372.
Mr Jenrick defended the government’s immigration plan, saying it was “the most comprehensive of any strategy to tackle this problem in Europe”.
He added: “As of today, arrivals are down by 20% compared with last year and for the month of August, the reduction was more than a third.”
But his Labour shadow Stephen Kinnock said the only reason figures were down on last year was because of the poor weather in July and August.
“A strategy that depends on the weather is probably not a very sustainable strategy at all,” he said.
The first asylum seekers arrived on the Bibby Stockholm last month but were moved off again just days later after tests revealed there had been an outbreak of Legionella – a bacteria that can cause a potentially deadly lung infection known as Legionnaires’ disease. It is contracted by people breathing in droplets of water containing the bacteria.
Conservative MP Richard Drax, who has opposed the barge which is based in his South Dorset constituency, took the opportunity to ask Mr Jenrick “when and if” migrants would return.
Mr Jenrick replied: “It was very unfortunate that migrants had to be moved off the barge over the summer. We deeply regret that. We did take a very precautionary approach.
“Tests have subsequently been carried out and the definitive answers to those tests will be received very shortly.
“Assuming that they show no signs of Legionella or indeed any other bacteria or cause of concern, then we will move people back onto the boat as soon as possible. I think we can expect that within weeks.”
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The Home Office has refused to confirm if any of the latest cases of diphtheria were found among people on board the Bibby Stockholm or among those staying at former RAF airbase Wethersfield Airfield in Essex, which opened to migrants for the first time in July.
Fifty-five of the cases have been recorded in the South East, while there have been seven in London, and fewer than five in the East of England, West Midlands, South West, North East, North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber.
Last year there were concerns that migrants had been moved out of a processing centre in Kent while showing symptoms of the infection.
At the time, the home secretary faced criticism about overcrowding and outbreaks of disease at Manston after Sky News revealed that a man held there may have died from a diphtheria infection.