- 27 May 20
When the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response sat in the Dáil yesterday, the TDs sought answers from the Department of Justice and the HSE on the approach taken to people in Direct Provision since the virus landed here. We were still left scratching our heads at the end of the session…
The Department of Justice were at the centre of things in the Dáil yesterday as they answered questions posed by TDs, at the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response hearing. The HSE were also represented.
Officials from both organisations were pressed on the quality of the Government's reaction to the spread of the coronavirus – and, more specifically, on a perceived failure to protect specific groups of vulnerable people living in 'congregated settings'. At times, the responses seemed opaque in the extreme, while there were moments too when TDs seemed to miss the opportunity to ask the right, searching questions.
Hot Press has covered the issue of the treatment of asylum seekers consistently over the past three weeks, in particular highlighting the plight of asylum seekers housed in a direct provision centre in the Skellig Star hotel, Cahersiveen, Co Kerry.
Nearly 25 asylum seekers at the infamous centre became ill with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. This followed their transfer from several hotels in Dublin as well as from Ciúin House, a Direct Provision Centre in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim.
This is What We Learned
• Out of around 8,000 people living in Direct Provision Centres in Ireland, 1,734 had been tested for coronavirus so far. That is less than 25%.
• Over 10% of those tested had contracted the virus.
• There was no plan or ‘strategy’ to test migrants who had been moved between locations during the coronavirus pandemic.
• Skellig Star Hotel was not examined by public health officials before asylum seekers were transferred there. Siobhán Mc Ardle, Head of Operations Primary Care at the HSE, told TDs that was not ‘normal or usual practice’ for the health authority to inspect a centre. “Only advice is given around public health guidance,” she said.
• A group of migrants were moved to Travelodge, where an outbreak of coronavirus was still ongoing, after a separate group had left the hotel for Cahersiveen
• Mark Wilson, Director of International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS), told the committee that 'risk assessment' for Skellig Star Hotel was deemed 'unnecessary' at the time people were moved there.
• 'Deep-cleaning' at Skellig Star Hotel, was carried out using 'Mr Price Star Drops', a cleaning liquid made of white vinegar, and sold at €1.49 a bottle. A resident has told Hot Press that the centre insists on using the brand when it comes to cleaning products. "It must be from Mr Price," the resident said, "One parent complained that the Mr. Price soap burned a kid's palm. It’s very cheap quality. I buy mine from Centra.”
• According to the Department of Justice, approximately 160 health care workers who are seeking asylum here, were reluctant to take up the Department's offer to be relocated to a better-suited accommodation. “They might be perfectly happy at the Direct Provision centre, so many people are quite happy where they are,” Oonagh Buckley, Assistant Secretary at the Department of Justice said.
• The Direct Provision System is facing insurmountable challenges as hotels that currently house migrants plan to return to the tourism sector. Unless the system is changed this will inevitably lead to an increase in the number of asylum seekers being housed in emergency accommodation.
• Nearly a thousand people who have already been granted refugee status are still living in Direct Provision Centres.
Ten Important, Unanswered Questions
1: Precisely How Many People Contracted Covid-19 in Direct Provision Centres?
The HSE has said that 175 cases of Covid-19 were identified among staff and residents across the country’s 84 Direct Provision Centres. However, when asked if that number accurately represented the reported 14 clusters in Direct Provision, a HSE official Dr. Kevin Kelleher said, it was ‘very close’, adding that he ‘doubted’ if the numbers were higher.
2: How many new ‘households’ were created in Direct Provision Centres during the coronavirus crisis?
When people move in with non-family members, they are, according to the Department of Justice, forming a household with those people. The Department was asked for the number of ‘new households' created during the pandemic, at a time when sharing rooms with non-family members was contrary to the advice of the country's chief medical officer, Dr Tony Hololan. No answer was provided.
3: How many cases of coronavirus were there in Travelodge Hotel and what categories of people were affected?
We know that there was an outbreak of coronavirus in Travelodge Hotel in Swords, Co. Dublin. The understanding is that someone stayed in the hotel having arrived from northern Italy. Were there other cases? If so, did they involve guests, members of staff, or visiting members of the public?
4: When the asylum seekers were placed in Travelodge, during an active coronavirus outbreak there, did the hotel still have regular guests?
Although it is not clear how many people were affected by the outbreak at Travelodge, it is clear that guests who were staying there and hotel staff would have had a higher chance of being infectious. They were therefore more likely to expose the new arrivals to the disease than vice versa.
Oonagh Buckley of the Department of Justice said she did not know whether or not any guests were staying in the hotel by the time the other group moved in. She promised, however, to find out the answer to the question.
5: Why was the Department of Justice not informed about an outbreak of coronavirus at Travelodge Hotel?
Several asylum seekers were moved to Skellig Star Hotel from Travelodge Hotel in Swords, Co. Dublin, where an outbreak of coronavirus occurred in early March. The Department of Justice later said that it only learned of this outbreak from the office of Social Democrats TD, Catherine Murphy. At yesterday’s hearing, Dr. Kevin Kelleher confirmed that the HSE did know about the outbreak in Travelodge, when it green-lighted the transfer of asylum seekers to Cahersiveen in mid-March.
“We knew about that slightly earlier that month, Okay? [It wasn’t communicated to the Department of Justice] because we deal with the individual cases as it is,” Dr. Kelleher said. “Information we had was such that the individual group they were part of had contact internally and with nobody else by the criteria we have which is very well-known around the contacts we talk about.” Dr. Kelleher wasn’t further probed on this somewhat disjointed response.
6: Was a decision made not to inform the Department of Justice about the outbreak at Travelodge?
It was suggested by IPAS, which is part of the Department of Justice, that – had the HSE notified the Department of Justice about the outbreak – an 'outbreak control team' should ideally have been convened. However, when TDs asked who had the responsibility to notify the Department of Justice, no answer was provided.
7: There seemed to be a lack of consistency in the HSE’s approach toward mass testing for congregated settings – it was done for nursing homes, but not for direct provision centres. Why?
The concern is that it might involve a failure to prioritise those in direct provision equally. In answer, Dr. Kelleher said that a series of mass testings took place in centres. No outbreak was identified. As a result, the HSE deemed it unnecessary to continue conducting those tests. Yet a significant number of cases did occur (though nothing on the tragic level of what occurred in nursing homes). It may be that a difference in ‘mean ages’ could be considered sufficient to prioritise nursing homes. But to have a full answer to the question is important.
8: Why were social-distancing measures were not fully implemented in Direct Provision Centres on March 12, following the Taoiseach’ initials recommendations?
Many asylum seekers continued to congregate in often cramped dining halls at direct provision centres around Ireland until April, while the rest of the country was abiding by the new social-distancing measures introduced by Leo Varadkar on March 12. For example, Hot Press has seen a text from late March, in which the manager at Ciúin House Direct Provision in Leitrim, had prohibited residents from eating in their rooms. “There is no eating in any of the bedrooms under no circumstances is this allowed,” the text said.
That question remains unanswered. It does seem, however, that an exceptional level of authority is bestowed upon the managers and owners of centres, when it comes to decision-making.
9: Who Wrote the Controversial Letter to Cahersiveen Residents?
As revealed in Hot Press, a controversial letter was written to residents at Skellig Star Hotel, Cahersiveen, which seemed to blame the residents for the fact that they would have to extend their period of collective isolation. Unlike all previous HSE communications to residents, the letter did not carry the HSE logo, nor was it signed.
Asked for the name of the author of that letter, Dr. Kelleher said that it was the fruit of a series of meetings held by the HSE’s ‘outbreak control team’. He also suggested that it could be interpreted that the letter was addressing the management as opposed to residents.
“I think you could read it either way saying that it was to the residents or it was to the management. It says what was required to try and control the outbreak, and solutions then followed,” he said.
The letter opens with the words, ‘Dear Resident.’ It includes the line: “This is clear evidence that some residents are not following the Public Health recommendations.”
10: How many asylum seekers still live in emergency accommodation?
“I have to get the exact numbers for you,” Oonagh Buckley said.
And one more for good luck
11: How much has the Department of Justice paid to private companies that run Direct Provision centres during the months of crisis?
In responding to this question, Oonagh Buckley opened up the possibility that the amount has exceeded all previous estimations. However, she did not provide a figure. But it is an important question, in that it begs a further one: did those companies put the extra funding to appropriate use to protect their vulnerable guests during the pandemic?
• TDs who probed the witnesses at the hearing yesterday included Joe O’Brien (Green Party), Bríd Smith (People Before Profit), Thomas Pringle (Independent), Michael Collins (Independent) Norma Foley (Fianna Fáil), Matt Carthy (Sinn Féin), Catherine Murphy (Social Democrats), Jennifer Carroll MacNeill (Fine Gael), Matt Shanahan (Independent) and Stephen Donnelly (Fianna Fáil).