Quite worked up

Richard Garside
Friday, 30 April 2021

A new report from the government’s scientific advisors on COVID-19 in prison is very clear.

Prisons are highly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks, with rates of infection and hospitalisation higher than in the general population, the report from the goverment’s SAGE committee, COVID-19 Transmission in Prison Settings, points out. Even as rates of infection in the wider community decline, prisons remain at high risk of outbreaks.

COVID outbreaks can be difficult to control, and can occur even when extreme lockdown measures are in place. Controlling the transmission of COVID into and out of prison will prove to be more and more challenging, the scientists argue, as activity in the courts and the wider criminal justice system returns to pre-COVID levels.

Unsurprisingly, the scientists behind the report argue in favour of early vaccination of staff and prisoners. “Increasing early vaccination of all prisoners and staff”, the report points out, “would allow faster lifting of severe restrictions, reduce outbreaks and decrease mortality, and benefit the wider control of Covid-19”.

Indeed, vaccinating all prisoners and all staff “is the only vaccination strategy that prevents a further large wave of cases within two years”. By contrast, vaccinating only staff and prisoners over the age of 50 would be “considerably less effective at preventing outbreaks”.

Since the start of lockdown just over a year ago, 143 prisoners have died as a result of COVID-19. Deaths appear to have accelerated over recent months; the second wave in prison being more deadly than the first. At least 36 staff have also died from COVID-19. Behind these figures lies the shadow cast by long-COVID, which will blight the lives of many more, for years to come.

The SAGE report, and the grim death toll in our prisons, should be more than enough to prompt the kind of proactive vaccination programme that many, including the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, have been advocating for some time.

Appearing before members of parliament last week, the Justice Secretary Robert Buckland declared himself “quite worked up” about the SAGE report. Unfortunately, he was agitated by the awkward challenge it posed to his policies, not seized by the opportunity it presented to do something to better protect the lives of prisoners and prison staff. “I think it’s wrong, I think it’s based upon misconceptions, I reject it”, he said.

Having failed previously to implement an early release programme to get as many prisoners as possible out of harm’s way, the Justice Secretary now appears more interested in trashing serious-minded scientific analysis than in being guided by its insights.

In the fight against COVID in prisons, we can only hope that science and reason will, at some point, triumph over base political calculation.