Diphtheria outbreak confirmed at troubled Manston processing centre

Manston processing centre Photo Frank Leppard

A diphtheria outbreak affecting a ‘small’ number of people at Manston processing centre has been confirmed by the Home Office.

The former Fire Training and Development Centre at Manston has been used since January this year for processing people that arrive in the country seeking asylum through ’irregular’ routes following the closure of Dover’s Tug Haven short-term immigration detention facilities. The purpose of the centre is to carry out security and identity checks.

But the site hit the headlines earlier this month when the POA trade union, which represents members who work on contracts supporting Immigration Services and Border Force Officers, raised concerns about the conditions and delays at the centre.

The union said the target of holding people for 24-48 hours was “purely aspirational” with people actually detained at the centre for a week or more due to the large number of people brought to the site last month.

Members also reported incidents of police being called to altercations and the centre running out of food and drinking water.

The site was expected to accommodate around 1,000 people but the Guardian reports some 3,000 are thought to currently be there.


Now there has been an outbreak of the highly contagious infection that affects the nose and throat, and sometimes the skin. It’s rare in the UK because babies and children have been routinely vaccinated against it since the 1940s but there’s a small risk of catching it if you travel to some parts of the world.

Diphtheria can be a serious illness and sometimes fatal, especially in children, if it’s not treated quickly. It is spread by coughs and sneezes, or through close contact with someone who is infected. You can also get it by sharing items, such as cups, cutlery, clothing or bedding, with an infected person.

A Home Office statement says: “We are aware of a very small number of cases of diphtheria reported at Manston.

“Full medical guidance and protocols have been followed. We take the safety and welfare of those in our care extremely seriously and are working closely with health professionals and the UK Health Security Agency to ensure the instances are contained and to support the individuals affected.”

The Home Office says all cases have been treated with antibiotics and the centre has followed the isolation guidance required, adding that the Home Office provides 24/7 health facilities at Manston as well as having robust contingency plans to deal with health issues such as communicable diseases.

The Home Office says it works closely with a range of partners within the community including local authorities and health leads since the development of Manston and continues to do so, adding: “We are absolutely committed to securing the welfare of all migrants and staff at Manston.”

The Guardian newspaper said there has previously been an outbreak of norovirus at the centre and scabies is said to be widespread.

‘Pressure cooker’

Earlier this month a POA member working at the site likened the situation to a pressure cooker coming to the boil with a jammed release valve. She described the ability to move people on from the site in a timely manner as that pressure release valve.

There have been reports of incidents escalating, altercations between residents boiling over and resulting in injury with Kent Police having to be called to the site to investigate assaults and provide support to staff.

Residents have also reported large numbers of people leaving the site with no apparent transport provided and uncertainty over whether a destination had been organised.

The POA statement said: “The POA believe the failure to relieve this pressure sits at the highest level with a government that has not provided a coherent response at pace, to the increase in numbers of migrants crossing the channel and the strain that is putting on the facility.”

The union says marquee tents at the former RAF base are crowded and there is inadequate bedding and laundry facilities. Cleaning issues include high levels of condensation within the marquees leading to mould and bacteria developing.

The POA has written to Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of prisons, to urge his inspectorate attend and assess the developing situation at the Manston STHF.

Last December North Thanet MP Sir Roger  Gale branded the processing site as “inappropriate” and said it would have “unfortunate and undesirable consequences for the communities and the people affected and the government.”

Numerous vacancies for Manston centre staff are currently being advertised.

In the week from October 10-16 some 2,374 people in 53 small boats were detected making the crossing to the UK.