Only 33 prisoners in England and Wales released under anti-coronavirus measures | Society

Only 33 prisoners have been released under emergency measures announced by the government to combat the spread of Covid-19 in jails in England and Wales, MPs have heard.

The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, told the Commons that the total number of those released included pregnant prisoners and women in mother and baby units (MBUs), which ministers had previously said was 17 as of Monday 20 April.

The Ministry of Justice had said on 4 April that the Prison Service would free up to 4,000 prisoners who were within two months of their release date and had passed a risk assessment.

The latest figures jar with remarks made on 15 April by the justice minister Lucy Frazer to MPs on the justice select committee that a “few hundred” prisoners were set for release the day after she was giving evidence.

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back elsewhere?

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

What are experts worried about?

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

However, a few days after Frazer gave evidence the release scheme was temporarily suspended when six inmates were mistakenly freed and then recalled.

Buckland struck an optimistic tone as he told MPs there were “positive signs” the approach in prisons was working, although he cautioned: “We are not out of the woods yet.”

In response to a question by the shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, Buckland told the House of Commons: “With regard to the question of early release, progress has been careful and slow but we’ve reached a position now where, also taking into account the release of pregnant women, a total of 33 prisoners have been released.

“It is a scheme I’ve not embarked upon lightly. It is a result of very careful risk assessment so that we want to minimise any risk to the public. It’s coupled with the reduction we’ve seen in prison places and capacity of about 3,000, which is already making a big difference in creating the space that we need in order to increase compartmentalisation and to reduce the spread of the virus.”

As of 5pm on Saturday, five members of prison staff and 15 prisoners had contracted Covid-19 and died. There have been 321 confirmed cases of coronavirus among prisoners and 293 among staff. There are 81,500 prisoners in England and Wales and about 33,000 staff working in public sector prisons.

Buckland said: “We have restrictive regimes in prisons and have minimised inter-prison transfers to reduce the spread of the virus. We’re implementing units to protect the sick, to shield the vulnerable and to cohort new arrivals to reduce risk.

“There are positive signs that our carefully implemented approach is limiting the impact of this initial phase of the pandemic, that cases and deaths are much lower than originally predicted, but we will continue to do everything possible that this remains the case.”

Buckland said prisons had sufficient supplies of most personal protective equipment, but the service was low on coveralls.

Lammy pressed Buckland for an exit strategy to enable order to be restored to prisons, which have been placed under a restrictive regime.

The shadow justice secretary said: “He will recognise, too, that with the restricted regime he talked about earlier, we cannot keep prisoners in their cells for 23 hours a day. It puts prison staff at risk, never mind potentially breaching very serious human rights.

“What’s his exit strategy in terms of tracing, upping testing and moving back to a degree of order in our prisons? Or we could be seeing rising tensions across the country.”

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which along with the Prison Reform Trust has threatened Buckland with legal action over the government’s handling of the crisis in prisons, said: “The government itself announced on 4 April that it proposed to release prisoners to save lives. It was originally anticipated that some 4,000 prisoners would be released to achieve that.

“It is inexplicable that, over three weeks later, less than 1% of that figure has been achieved and our prisons remain overcrowded as the rate of infection among prisoners and staff increases.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Over three weeks ago the government accepted the case for a substantial programme of early release in order to save lives.

“To release just 33 people in three weeks suggests either that there is no serious intention to implement the policy, or incompetence in carrying it out. Either way, the same lives are at stake, and the clock is still ticking.”

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