Continued government failure to control COVID-19 in prisons

Matt Ford
Friday, 20 November 2020

Last week the Ministry of Justice released figures for confirmed cases of COVID-19 in prisons and COVID-19 related deaths.

They show that after months of cases appearing to drop to low levels and no deaths since June, there was a surge in confirmed cases in October, as well as a number of deaths.

There were 883 newly confirmed cases recorded in October. This is ten times the number of confirmed cases in September, and more than double the number in April, previously the worst month of the pandemic in prisons. Testing of all symptomatic cases in prisons was not rolled out until 15 April, but it is estimated that there were 1,612 confirmed and probable/possible cases from 15 March to 24 April.

There were five COVID-19 related deaths in October, the second highest tally after April, when there were 17. 

Ten new prisons recorded cases last month, meaning 85 per cent of prisons are now affected. 

This is a damning indictment of the government’s strategy for managing and controlling the virus in prisons. Despite the fact that prisons are facing highly restrictive regimes, cases seem to have exploded as there has been a resurgence in the community. 

Calls to significantly reduce the prison population, as recommended by Public Health England amongst others, have so far been resisted. Only 316 people were released under the early release scheme, which was paused in August. When the scheme was announced it was suggested that up to 4,000 could be released. 

I think we are seeing the failure to follow this course of action come home to roost. A significant programme of early release now needs to be implemented to enable prisoners to effectively social distance in the community and prevent further infection and death among the custodial population.