Ministers took “very quick action” to move asylum seekers from the Bibby Stockholm barge after traces of Legionella bacteria were found, the Health Secretary said, amid a blame game about the response to the situation.
Steve Barclay said Home Office ministers were not told about the situation until the night of August 10, despite claims a local council told the contractors running the vessel about test results on August 7 – the day migrants boarded the barge.
The discovery eventually led to the removal on August 11 of all 39 people who had boarded the floating accommodation docked in Portland, Dorset.
Tory-run Dorset Council said it informed the “responsible organisations”, barge operators CTM and Landry & Kling, about the preliminary test results on Monday August 7 – the same day it received them.
A Home Office official was then told about the discovery on August 8, the council said.
Mr Barclay insisted ministers only became aware of the issue on August 10 but did not deny the possibility Home Office officials may have been aware earlier.
“As soon as ministers were notified on Thursday night, there were some concerns with that, they took instant action,” the Health Secretary told Sky News.
He added: “It may be the council notified the Home Office, that is an issue for those in the Home Office to respond to, obviously this is a Home Office lead.
“My understanding from colleagues in the Home Office is it was notified to Home Office ministers on Thursday and they then took very quick action as a result.”
Legionella was detected in a sample analysed by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on behalf of Dorset’s environmental health team.
UKHSA chief Dame Jenny Harries said the initial findings did not require a response by her agency as it could be that there were environmental factors which did not mean there was a public health risk.
But she said the local health protection team was alerted on the night of August 9 and she was informed first thing on August 10 when the UKHSA “jumped in immediately”.
The migrants moved on to Bibby Stockholm on August 7, the start of the Government’s “small boats week” policy blitz aimed at showing they were tackling the problems of migrants crossing the English Channel and the backlog in the asylum system.
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether asylum seekers should have been allowed to board before the test results came back, Dame Jenny said “we would always, in public health terms, want places as safe as possible”.
She said the Home Office acted to remove the asylum seekers from the vessel as a precaution before a recommendation to do so.
Dorset Council defended its handling of the situation.
A spokesman said: “To be clear, it was not Dorset Council’s responsibility to inform the Home Office – that responsibility sat with CTM and Landry & King, the companies contracted by the Home Office to operate the barge.”
Meanwhile, there were further signs of activity in the English Channel on Monday following large numbers of migrants making the crossing in recent days.
More than 1,600 people were detected making the journey from France across Thursday to Saturday last week according to provisional Home Office figures.
At least six people died and dozens were rescued after a boat got into difficulty off the coast of Sangatte, northern France, on Saturday.