Update on second wave of COVID-19 in prisons

Matt Ford
Sunday, 20 December 2020

Here’s another update on the second wave of the pandemic in prisons as the Ministry of Justice have switched back to releasing weekly data

What’s happened so far in the second wave in prisons?

As you can see from the graph below there have been a further 2,312 confirmed cases in prisons in England and Wales between 9th November and 14th December (there is no data for the first week of November). Also in that period, there were 17 COVID-related deaths. In the week to 14th December there were 49 prisons with active outbreaks.

Cases have been on the rise since September, when 90 confirmed cases were recorded. Confirmed cases amongst prisoners then rose to 883 in October. The first five COVID deaths since June were also recorded in October. 

The weekly data suggests the second wave dissipated through November and into early December, as indicated by declining numbers of cases and fewer outbreaks. However, data released last week shows cases climbing again in the week ending 14th December. 

In evidence to the Justice Committee on 30th November, Jo Farrar indicated that, at that time, there were five prisons with ‘large or medium-sized’ outbreaks, meaning 40 or more confirmed cases, and 22 prisons with outbreaks of fewer than ten confirmed cases. The other 30 or so outbreaks will have had between ten and 40 cases.

How does this compare to the first wave?

The tally of confirmed cases for 9th November to 14th December is even higher than the 1,612 cases Public Health England estimated there were in the initial stage of the pandemic between March and April. Their figure consisted of 227 confirmed cases and a further 1,385 possible/probable cases, i.e. symptomatic prisoners who weren’t tested due to insufficient testing capacity. In her evidence to the Justice Committee, Jo Farrar indicated that there is now far more testing, even of asymptomatic cases:

We do not believe that the second wave is more severe than the first wave. We believe that we have better testing in the second wave so it is showing us many more asymptomatic cases that we would not have necessarily known about in the wave 1.

The trend in deaths, however, is so far roughly similar to the first wave. There were 27 COVID-related deaths of prisoners in the first wave, and there have been at least 22 so far in the second.

Why is there a second wave in prisons?

As I’ve highlighted before, the second wave came about in the context of loosening of restrictive regimes over the summer and into the autumn and rising cases in the community. Most prisons are now in stage three of the National Framework, meaning regimes are less restrictive than they were in the first wave. Social visits, offender management work and offender behaviour programmes, with restrictions, have all resumed. Social visits were suspended during the national restrictions in November, and still are suspended in prisons in areas under Tier three restrictions. The average time out of cells is said to be 20 hours a week, compared to the majority of prisoners being locked in cells for over 23 hours a day in the first wave. Prisons with larger outbreaks have much more restricted regimes. 

What might happen in terms of cases in the future?

Now that the month-long national lockdown is over, cases in the community are on the rise again. Even with the tier system in operation, high infection levels in the community are likely to remain throughout the winter and into spring next year until the vaccine programme is sufficiently rolled out. In that context, the prison service will at the very least have to continue to implement stricter regimes in prisons where larger outbreaks occur, if not reimplement them across the whole estate.

Given that analysis by the Nuffield Trust from July showed that, even after accounting for the different age profile of the prison population, rates of COVID-19 infection were higher than in the community, it remains the case that significant numbers of prisoners should be released and provided with accommodation to be able to safely socially distance outside. The prison population and prison staff should also be prioritised in the vaccination programme