This week the UK passed the grim milestone of over 100,000 COVID-19 deaths.
Behind this large number is a much bigger one, counted in the millions, of lives blighted through the loss of a loved one; through illness; through the ongoing effects of long-COVID and other complications.
“I’m deeply sorry for every life that has been lost”, Boris Johnson said earlier this week. “What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could and continue to do everything that we can.”
Some will accept the Prime Minister's assertion. Others will doubt it. In the case of prisons, the claim rings hollow.
Early on in the crisis, the government adopted an extreme lockdown approach to managing the spread of coronavirus in prisons. It helped to contain the spread of the virus and almost certainly saved lives. It could have been a lot worse. It could also have been a lot better.
Early release schemes have been recommended by the World Health Organisation as one way of getting prisoners with health vulnerabilities out of harm's way. The government announced such a scheme for England and Wales early on in the pandemic.
A mere 316 prisoners were released under the scheme before it was discontinued last year. To put this in perspective, Northern Ireland, with a fraction of the prison population of England and Wales, has to date released 335 prisoners.
Prioritising prison staff and prisoners for vaccination is another policy the government could pursue, but has refused to do so. Earlier this week, the Bishop of Gloucester, who is also the Bishop to prisons, was the latest parliamentarian to call for such an approach.
"We seem to have a problem on our hands" with #covid in #prisons, admits minister Lord Bethell after @BishGloucester reports over 70 prisoners have died and asks: "Will the Government consider prioritising vaccinating both prisoners and those who work in prisons?" @POAUnion pic.twitter.com/jFtf1myUeo
— Justice Unions Parliamentary Group (@JusticeUnions) January 26, 2021
The damage of this failure to act is being played out in the lives of prisoners and their families every day. I heard one such story earlier this week, from a recently-released prisoner. He had unknowingly contracted COVID-19 in his final week in prison, and passed it on to his wife following release. He told me:
As soon as I began to recover, I experienced complications caused by COVID-19, and that resulted in being admitted to hospital. I am now at home and am recovering slowly. However, both my wife's and my health have been significantly impacted and we are both going to have to deal with the effects for the rest of our lives. My wife has long COVID which affects her breathing and I am on drugs to prevent further complications.
The sad truth is that these health problems could have been avoided had I been released, as I feel I should have been, under the MoJ’s COVID-19 early release scheme.
Prisoners and their families have had their health damaged, some have died, due to the stubborn refusal of ministers to pursue policies that might have kept more of them out of harm's way.
It may be a relatively small scandal within a much larger scandal. It is a scandal nonetheless.
There are worrying signs that the new, more contagious, strains of the virus are spreading through our prisons. A government that wants to do everything it can to prevent unnecessary deaths in prison needs to do a lot better.