New Covid strain could see ‘heavy toll’ of infections in jails, warns former prisons watchdog

The new coronavirus strain could lead to a “heavy toll” of infections in jails across England and Wales, the former prisons watchdog has warned.

Nick Hardwick, who served as the chief inspector of prisons from 2010 until 2016, said it was vital that ministers got “a real grip” on the potential spread of the virus in jails or risk preventable deaths.

The former watchdog chief called for a release scheme to be introduced so that vulnerable inmates are removed from jails, and for it to be less “bureaucratic” than the scheme brought in during the first wave of the pandemic.

Large parts of the UK were plunged into lockdown on Saturday in light of a new variant of coronavirus that is up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original.

Prof Hardwick told The Independent this was a significant risk for prisons, where people are held in close proximity and the population is disproportionately made up of high-risk individuals, and urged the government to “act fast” to protect inmates, prison staff and the wider public.

He said that although prisoners were not high on most people’s agendas, he was “very concerned” that the new strain of the virus would mean staff bringing it into jails and lead to a “heavy toll” unless a stricter regime was introduced.

During the first lockdown, prisons across England and Wales adopted strict regimes whereby social visits and education were cancelled and inmates were locked in their cells for most of the time, allowed out only to access to showers and phones – if they did not have one in their cells – and to exercise.

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