Home Office pushing ahead with deportation flights despite new lockdown and surge in coronavirus

The Home Office is pushing ahead with charter flights despite the UK’s new lockdown and soaring levels of coronavirus, in what campaigners say shows “contempt” for both deportees and the wider public. Boris Johnson announced new, stricter coronavirus measures on Monday in an effort to slow the spread of the new, more transmissible variant of the virus, saying “everyone should now stay at home and only leave the house where absolutely necessary”. Under the new rules, people are told that they should not travel abroad, and that they can only do so where they have a “legally permitted reason” to leave home, such as for work.

However, two deportation flights, each carrying up to 30 individuals, are due to leave the UK next week – one to Romania on Wednesday and one to Poland on Thursday. The Home Office said it would “continue to progress operations with appropriate measures in place”. Flights to Poland from the UK are currently banned and the Polish government has not confirmed to The Independent whether it will accept the charter flight.

A travel ban in Romania was lifted on Monday. The Home Office said “appropriate measures” would be in place on the flights to prevent the spread of Covid-19, with all escorting staff required to wear masks and all deportees required to have their temperature taken on leaving detention centres before removal.  Tests are offered before flights only if they are a requirement of the receiving country, the Home Office said.

The decision to proceed with removal flights contradicts a statement from the UN last year, which warned that forced returns could “intensify serious public health risks for everyone” in both host and origin communities, as well as placing “additional strain” on countries of return.

The international organisation warned that deportees may be at risk of experiencing “extreme financial hardship” and potentially human trafficking on return to their country of origin, due to already high levels of unemployment as a result of the pandemic. Ministers have not confirmed whether there will be any further charter flights this month, but campaigners are concerned there may soon be a mass deportation to Jamaica, after Priti Patel vowed last week to make these flights a “regular drumbeat”. Pierre Makhlouf, assistant director at Bail for Immigration Detainees, said it was “simply staggering” that the Home Office was pushing ahead with charter flights during the new lockdown.

“By the government’s own admission, coronavirus cases are soaring out of control, and we are all being asked to make huge sacrifices to save lives and protect the NHS. Of course there is no way to operate these flights safely,” he said. “This shows contempt for the lives not just of those facing deportation, but the entire UK and destination countries.”

Sonia Lenegan, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said: “Removing from people from the UK at this time is not safe, even more so than earlier in the pandemic as a result of the new UK variant of the virus.   “It is unclear whether people are required to have a negative test for Covid-19 prior to being boarded onto the flight next week. There is also a risk that the UK is enabling the further spread of the virus to other countries by continuing with these flights.”

Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, accused the home secretary of “prioritising populism ahead of public health throughout the pandemic”.   She added: “The new Covid mutation has brought our NHS to the brink, why does she think she has the right to inflict this misery on Poland and Romania?” A Home Office spokesperson said: “We remain committed to removing foreign criminals and those who violate our immigration rules, and will continue to progress operations with appropriate measures in place.”

The Romanian and Polish governments have been approached for comment.

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