Conspicuous Cruelty

Liam Shaw

Thirty-nine asylum seekers were received onto the Bibby Stockholm, moored off Portland, on 7 August. The opening of the barge had been delayed by fire safety issues including a door being fitted the wrong way around, but Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, told Sky News: ‘I can absolutely assure you that this is a safe facility.’ On the day the asylum seekers arrived preliminary results suggested the presence of Legionella in the water supply – the bacterium that causes the form of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease. They were not evacuated until four days later.

Legionnaires’ disease gets its name from an outbreak in July 1976. After a three-day convention of the American Legion at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, 182 people contracted a respiratory disease of unknown cause. Twenty-nine of them died. Possible causes proposed at the time included fluorocarbon gas from refrigeration, recombinant DNA and contaminated pretzels. By the following year, scientists had identified a new bacterial species, which they named Legionella pneumophila. (It could have been otherwise: retrospective analysis of a convention of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows at the Bellevue-Stratford in September 1974 showed that at least twenty Odd Fellows had been infected with the same bacteria.)

In their natural environment, Legionella live in water and soil, often inside amoebas. This intracellular lifestyle can continue in the human body. If inhaled, some species can persist in our lungs inside macrophages, the immune cells that normally digest bacteria. Humans are a ‘dead-end’ host for Legionella, infected by happenstance with droplets from a shower or an air-conditioning unit. Human-to-human transmission has been reported, but seems extremely rare.

The genus Legionella, like many bacterial taxonomic classifications, is a compendium of diversity, with more than sixty species described to date. A few are capable of human infection: aerosolised potting soil containing L. longbeachae caused a small outbreak in New Zealand in 2017. But Legionnaires’ disease is the most severe form of Legionella-associated infection and L. pneumophila is by far its most common cause. The disease is a marker of technological progress: centralised hot and cold water systems for large buildings were a new environmental niche which L. pneumophila has evolved to fit.

The Bibby Stockholm was last used in 2019 in Sweden for wind-farm workers. Since then, it may have been sitting with stagnant water in its systems. You might have thought that before allowing people onboard, the British government would have taken measures to disinfect the supply: UK residential landlords have a legal duty to carry out risk assessments, and tenancy agreements often include clauses committing tenants to flushing of the water system if they’ve been away for a few weeks.

Though residential homes can have Legionella, outbreaks tend to be associated with bigger commercial buildings where a single contaminated tank can infect large numbers of people. A recent case brought against a plastics firm in West Bromwich by the Health and Safety Executive is a small-scale example: five people were infected, leading to a £50,000 fine.

Like other Home Office facilities, the Bibby Stockholm is operated by contractors. The barge is being run by a company called Corporate Travel Management, together with a subcontractor, Landry and Kling, who specialise in ‘cruise incentive’ trips, where companies reward employees with a cruise. (Cruise ships, with their often elderly passengers, have had their share of outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease.) Landry and Kling have said they ‘are working closely with local authorities to ensure housing solutions are safe and appropriate for service users’.

The Home Office said on Friday that ‘it is not unusual to identify Legionella bacteria in warm water systems’. That’s true. But as the HSE inspector who led the prosecution of the plastics firm put it, the key is ‘proactive management’: ‘There are well publicised and simple precautions for companies to take.’ It seems that they were not taken by either the Home Office or its contractors before the first asylum seekers arrived on the disused barge last Monday. Dorset Council gave the test results to the contractors that day. What happened next is unclear. The Home Office claim they were only informed of the results two days later – by the council, not the contractor. The barge was evacuated the following day.

Behind the incompetence there is not only cruelty, but the desire to be seen enacting it. The alleged purpose of painting over murals for children, propagating fantasies about transporting people to Ascension Island and using overcrowded barges for accommodation is that it will somehow deter people – the same people who already risk death by drowning to reach the UK. This is obviously ludicrous. The conspicuous cruelty is targeted not at asylum seekers but at British voters. The Labour Party meanwhile, instead of condemning the government’s policies, promises only to carry them out more competently.

We don’t yet know if any asylum seekers have fallen ill. Legionnaires’ disease takes several days to develop after initial exposure. So far, one man who was on board has told the BBC he had breathing problems and others had sore throats. The evacuees are said to be afraid of drinking the tap water at the hotel they have been moved to, and are spending their allowance of £9 a week on bottled water.


  • 15 August 2023 at 6:48am
    Beaver says:
    Thank you Liam. For anyone else reading this and feeling the same mixture of rage and impotence, there's a charity called RE UK which helps young immigrants with their education by running a mentoring programme. In my experience, there are benefits for both mentor and mentee, as well as a sense of doing something, however small, to counteract this demonstrable cruelty.

  • 18 August 2023 at 5:23pm
    Ken Gelder says:
    The 'Bibby Stockholm' barge is a throwback to the old convict transportation days, which would typically begin in your country with incarceration on a local prison hulk (usually, decommissioned naval vessels) at a port such as Woolwich or Plymouth. Dickens’s novel Great Expectations (1862) begins somewhere around 1807 with the convict Abel Magwitch escaping from a prison hulk on the Thames estuary. I hope the same thing happens on that flaming barge. Amazing that Britain, as it deals with asylum seekers today, is basically reviving a brutalising penal system that is over 200 years old.