How Covid spread through Norwich prison
- Credit: Archant
A prison guard has lifted the lid on how a mass coronavirus outbreak ripped through HMP Norwich.
A surge in Covid cases in December and January at the Knox Road prison was one reason for the city’s soaring levels of infections last month. At the start of the year, the area around the prison recorded one of the highest infection rates in the country.
One guard said he was aware of several infected prisoners who had been released into the community when their sentences were up and said he feared that further spread the virus.
Councillor George Nobbs, whose ward includes HMP Norwich, said similar concerns were also raised with him by staff. However, prisoners have to be let go at the end of their sentence.
In response, a prison spokesman said that there was no longer an outbreak at the prison.
The outbreak began in C-wing at the start of December. The prison service said the wing was locked down and no prisoner was moved out, but cases soon soared.
More than 70 staff and 200 prisoners - a quarter of the population - were infected by the middle of January.
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A mobile testing unit for staff arrived on December 8, but there were long waits to get results back.
The prison service said the delays were a national problem, but the guard said it meant infected staff continued to work for several days before finding out if they had Covid. Staff and inmates are now being regularly tested.
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By the start of January, the prison’s A-wing was a hotspot and it was locked down, but lockdowns were eased on other wings as there were a high number of negative tests.
However, the prison was facing staffing problems as so many were off either ill or self-isolating. Staff were told to isolate if contacted by NHS Test and Trace.
On January 5, 36 staff were off, according to a message sent by the prison’s governor, Jacqui Spencer. “Staffing has been very difficult over the last two weeks,” she wrote.
The guard said many of his colleagues had become infected with some needing hospital treatment.
“Two members of staff I know of were on ventilators in intensive care. I’ve had colleagues bed-bound,” he said.
“Even the Covid team - the people who notify staff if they are positive - has had Covid.”
Some prisoners became so ill they had to be taken to hospital too, which took further staff away from the prison.
A prison spokesman said in response that it had "sufficient staff" to run what it called a "Covid regime".
The prison also said it had adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and inmates, but the guard questioned if they had been given enough.
"Staff dealing with Covid-infected prisoners have access to full PPE and are fully aware of the prisoners’ status," a spoksman said. "This has been the case at the prison since March 2020."
Prisoners were also given face masks to wear when leaving their cells in mid-January, but the deputy governor, Kevin Clark, raised concerns with staff that this was not happening. “Unfortunately, I have not seen this implemented and challenged as I would have expected,” he wrote.
Staff at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital also complained to Public Health England about prison guards not wearing full PPE when they were with an inmate on a ward. “This is not acceptable at any time,” the governor told staff on January 5.
By mid-January there were still outbreaks on G Wing, B Wing and L Wing.
The guard said: “It is almost like they believed it (Covid) would never get here and when it did there was no contingency."
Those concerns were echoed by inspectors from the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board who visited at the start of last year.
They said “Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Board had concerns over basic hygiene and the lack of soap throughout the establishment.
“By the end of February 2020 (when coronavirus was widely talked about in the press), the Board expressed to the governor its extreme concern that no contingency plans or guidance to staff or prisoners had been published, and that there were no extra facilities to allow for hand washing.”
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) refused to release details about numbers infected until they answered a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper in mid-January. At that point they said 70 staff and 200 prisoners had been infected since November.
The MoJ say there are currently no cases at the prison
Government data shows the number of new infections in the area of Norwich which includes the prison peaked in the week leading up to January 8 at 104 cases.
It has since declined, but there were still 29 new infections in the week of February 5.
Mr Nobbs said: “The whole thing has been made worse by the desire of prison authorities to keep it secret.
“It makes things far more dangerous to the public and the prisoners.
He added: “It is ironic that just across the road from the prison, the Lionwood Health Centre is doing a wonderful job in vaccinating local people while the MoJ has been trying to suppress information about the extent of a local outbreak."
Norfolk public health declined to comment on the prison.
There have been a series of outbreaks at prisons across the country, including at HMP Wayland where around 100 prisoners have become infected.
Deaths of prisoners from Covid also rose in December nationally. By the end of 2020 there had been outbreaks in 116 facilities and more than 6,000 prisoners had tested positive for Covid.
But a prison spokesman said there had been a downward fall in infection rates for that past three weeks.
A prison spokesman said: "Mass testing, shielding and reduced contact across the country’s prisons mean infections are significantly lower than predicted at the start of the pandemic and have continued to fall for the last three weeks."