Rishi Sunak defends Bibby Stockholm migrant barge despite legionella bacteria discovery

15 August 2023, 16:08 | Updated: 15 August 2023, 16:30

Rishi Sunak has defended the use of the Bibby Stockholm barge
Rishi Sunak has defended the use of the Bibby Stockholm barge. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Rishi Sunak has defended the government's use of the Bibby Stockholm barge to house migrants, despite the discovery of the legionella bacteria.

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Migrants were moved off the barge were moved off on Friday after the legionella bacteria was discovered last week. Legionella can cause the potentially fatal Legionnaires' disease.

Dorset Council said the bacteria had been discovered on Monday, and that officers had notified the contractors operating the barge - meaning the migrants may have been exposed to the bacteria for four days.

Ministers said that they had been told on Thursday night, and that none of the migrants had fallen ill.

Mr Sunak was asked whether he was personally warned about potential health risks for asylum seekers on board the barge.

Read more: Rishi Sunak still has 'confidence' in Home Secretary Suella Braverman despite Legionella discovery on Bibby Stockholm

Read more: Migrants must get back on Bibby Stockholm barge despite outrage over legionella, Health Secretary says

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak. Picture: Getty

"What has happened here is it is right that we go through all the checks and procedures to ensure the wellbeing and health of the people being housed on the barge," he told broadcasters on a visit to a hospital in Milton Keynes.

Mr Sunak, who recently came back from a California family holiday, said that ministers were acting reasonably with migrants.

He added: "But taking a step back, what is this about? This is about fairness.

"It is about the unfairness, in fact, of British taxpayers forking out £5 million or £6 million a day to house illegal migrants in hotels up and down the country, with all the pressure that puts on local communities.

The Bibby Stockholm
The Bibby Stockholm. Picture: Alamy

"We've got to find alternatives to that, that is what the barge is about and that is why we are committed to it.

"But more fundamentally, we've just got to stop people coming here in the first place illegally. That is why one of my five priorities is to stop the boats.

"We've passed tough new laws that, when they come into force, will enable us to do that and we're already seeing numbers this year that are lower than they have been in previous years. That is the first time that has happened.

"I know there is a long way to go on this but I'm determined to fix this problem and we are making progress and people can be reassured we will keep at it."

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Legionella bacteria can cause Legionnaires' disease, a lung infection that causes flu-like symptoms, coughs, chest pain and shortness of breath.

In extreme cases, it can lead to people coughing up blood.

Shadow immigration minister Stephen Kinnock wrote to his opposite number on Saturday asking what the Home Office knew about the risk of the bacteria being present before moving migrants onto the barge.

Former Brexit secretary David Davis said the barge would not serve as a "solution" to the backlog even without the presence of the bacteria.

He said: "The primary thing that's been revealed has been the startling incompetence of the Home Office itself... It's really, really hard to understand how, at all layers, this could not be caught early".

The senior Conservative MP suggested the problems could be related to "management" of the department rather than "ministerial" issues specifically, but added: "Even working properly, the Bibby barge would only take effectively one day's arrivals.

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"So it's not a solution to the problem and all of this is going to go on until the Home Office is able to process these arrivals more quickly."

Conservative backbenchers have accused the Home Office of "incompetence" after the legionella incident.

But the government still plans to expand its fleet of floating migrant barges, as well as office and student accommodation blocks.

Tim Loughton said the evacuation was an "embarrassment" and smacked of "incompetence," coming at the end of a week in which the Government had planned a series of announcements aimed at promoting its immigration approach.

The Tory MP told the Telegraph: "This is deeply troubling and rapidly turning into a farce that the Home Office can ill afford."