A photographer who was slapped with an “unlawful” Covid-19 fine after reporting on a protest outside Napier Barracks says he is “deeply concerned” about the freedom of the press. Now the home secretary has blamed the people housed in the same barracks for spreading Covid with each other.
Freelancer Andy Aitchison was arrested by police on suspicion of criminal damage after simply attending the outside of the barracks to report on the demonstrations.
During the protest, demonstrators threw fake blood at the barbed-wire topped gates of the controversial site in Folkestone, Kent.
Following his arrest he was detained for a number of hours, interviewed and released on conditional bail not to go to Napier Barracks, his lawyers said.
Police later refused charges on February 5 but days later he was handed a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN), which Kent Police has now said was issued erroneously, his lawyers said on Thursday.
Bindmans LLP said the FPN was “unlawful” and criticised what it called a “flagrant disregard of all journalists’ ability to report on events”.
It comes as the Home Office faces criticism for its continued use of the site, including a suggestion that it rejected Public Health England’s advice that the dormitories were not suitable to house asylum seekers.
Now Priti Patel has said that the nearly 200 people contained in the barracks are themselves to blame for contracting Covid. The outbreak began in January and has continued to spread ever since.
Speaking to MPs at the home affairs committee evidence session on Wednesday, Patel responded to questions about the Covid outbreak claiming that people were not following the rules.
Around 400 asylum seekers were placed on site last September and required to sleep in dormitories of up to 28 people.
Yvette Cooper, chair of the committee, said: “That looks like pretty clear evidence to me that those dormitories were not safe. Presumably, that will have affected staff who live in the local community as well.
“On what planet did you think in the middle of a Covid crisis it was sensible or safe to put over 20 people in a dorm so they’re all sleeping in the same room with the same air overnight, each night?”
Ms Patel then told the committee: “Within accommodation for asylum seekers, people do mingle, and it is a fact – when we look at what happened in Napier Barracks three weeks ago, people were also not following the rules.”
Ms Cooper described Patel’s response as “astonishing”, commenting: “Effectively you’re blaming those people for not following the rules when they had to sleep 28 people to a room.”
In January Kolbassia Haoussou, lead survivor advocate at Freedom from Torture, said: “The Government’s plans to extend the use of barracks to accommodate asylum seekers in the middle of a pandemic is horrifying. I fled torture and came to the UK as a refugee.
“As I have rebuilt my life here, I am proud of Britain’s tradition and duty of offering safety to those fleeing persecution. But I never thought I would see the day where a British Government effectively sets up detention camps for the most vulnerable in our society.
“A major crisis is unfolding in these unsanitary and dangerous places. Many of the people trapped here have low immune systems and mental health issues linked to the abuse they have fled.
“The attempted suicides and life-threatening outbreaks of Covid-19 tell a tragic story. The Government has the power to end this nightmare now. Empty the barracks, close the camps, save lives.”
The Home Office insists that accommodation at Napier Barracks is “safe, suitable, (and) Covid-compliant”.
Immigration minister Chris Philp said: “We take the welfare of those in our care extremely seriously and asylum seekers can contact the 24/7 helpline run by Migrant Help if they have any issues.”