Fifty migrants who have arrived in the UK this year have been diagnosed with diphtheria, the immigration minister has revealed, with the vast majority being reported in the last two months.
Robert Jenrick told MPs that the number has increased significantly since he first gave an update on 1 November.
The latest UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data identified 18 new diphtheria cases in October and 27 so far this month – with a total of 50 cases since February this year.
There was one case each in February, June, July, August and September.
The immigration minister said the UKHSA found the cases, which were across different asylum accommodations, had developed before the migrants had entered the UK, either in their country of origin or on their journey through Europe.
“It’s important to emphasise that the UKHSA has been clear that the risk to the wider UK population from onward transmission of diphtheria is very low, thanks in no small part to our excellent childhood immunisation programme,” he told the Commons.
He said “public health is paramount” and the government would take “all steps necessary to ensure that the public are protected”.
The UKHSA said of the 50 cases, two were severe and required hospital admission and treatment with diphtheria anti-toxin and antibiotics.
Earlier today the Home Office revealed 500 migrants at the Manston processing centre in Kent had been vaccinated against diphtheria before they were moved to further accommodation.
At the beginning of November, the centre was suffering from severe overcrowding, which is when reports of diphtheria cases first emerged.
Sky News also revealed today a man who died after staying at Manston had the disease.
Mr Jenrick said initial tests on the man were negative but a subsequent PCR test showed he had diphtheria, however his cause of death is pending as the post-mortem results have not come through yet.
The minister said migrants are being tested upon arrival in the UK and those with diphtheria are being isolated in a designated area.
People with symptoms are being tested, and also their close contacts, he said.
Mr Jenrick added that the measures “go beyond the baseline advice of the UKHSA because we want to take precautionary measures”.
All migrants who arrived at Manston this weekend took up the offer of the vaccine, which is voluntary, Mr Jenrick said.
When the government initially started offering the vaccine there was only around a 45% uptake but he said it is now 100%.
Mr Jenrick said the government will be liaising with the French to assess the diphtheria status in the migrant camps in northern France, where most stay before making the dangerous Channel crossing to the UK.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper asked what is happening with the “other several thousand” who have been moved on from Manston over the past month.
She raised concerns that not enough has been done to stop diphtheria potentially spreading from those who have not been vaccinated as she said the public health recommendation to screen and vaccinate was made nearly three weeks ago “and that was already late”.
Ms Cooper also called on ministers to make sure all those with symptoms are given “precautionary antibiotics” to fight the disease”.
Mr Jenrick said the Home Office and the UKHSA are going to work with public health directors in areas where migrants are being sent to make they have the guidance to protect people from the disease.
Migrants who have been moved on and have diphtheria will be required to “isolate in their rooms within those hotels or other forms of accommodation”, he added.
They will get their food and laundry brought to their door until they are well again and if further measures are needed they will be implemented, he said.