Claims that Covid-19 is “spiralling out of control” in prisons have been branded a “myth” by the Justice Secretary, despite MPs warning of a “spike” in deaths.
Robert Buckland told the Commons that two-thirds of the prison estate in England and Wales have “no outbreaks at all” or outbreaks of “fewer than 10”.
Government figures show the deaths of 24 prisoners were linked to Covid-19 in December, bringing the total number to 71.
But Mr Buckland sought to downplay concerns raised in the House of Commons.
Labour’s Zarah Sultana (Coventry South) told the chamber: “Covid is spiralling out of control in our prisons. In December, deaths surged by 50% and cases by 70%.
“But unlike the last lockdown, the Government insists non-essential workers go in and out of prisons every day – risking spreading the virus.”
Ms Sultana highlighted union concerns over teachers having to go into prisons to print worksheets, deliver them to cells, pick them up and then mark them on-site rather than from home.
Mr Buckland replied: “She must not repeat the myth that Covid is out of control in our prisons. It serves nobody’s interests, least of all the staff who are working day and night to control it.”
He said the Government wanted to ensure “more education and skills training was available” during the lockdown.
Mr Buckland added: “The passage of paper and other documents in and out of prison could inherently pose a security risk, that’s the reality we live in, and therefore it’s important we balance the needs of prison security alongside the needs of prisoners to have access to education.”
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy earlier warned cases of Covid-19 are “getting out of control” in prisons.
He said: “In December, there were 75 cases per thousand in prison compared to 46 in the wider community.
“There are 87 outbreaks across an estate of 117 prisons in England and Wales. There have been reports of prisoners leaving cells who’ve tested positive for coronavirus being taken to court, putting all at risk.
“In December, the total number of deaths in prison throughout the whole pandemic spiked by 50% in just one month.
“Can (Mr Buckland) tell the House how many prisoners and prison staff died after being infected by the coronavirus in the month of January?”
Mr Buckland responded: “I will absolutely furnish those precise figures to (Mr Lammy) when they are finally available, which will be very shortly.
“Can I deal with the general point he makes – it is important to note that an outbreak is defined as any number of cases in excess of two in our prisons.
“At the moment as I speak, two-thirds of the prison estate either have no outbreaks at all or outbreaks of fewer than 10. Now that is an important qualification.”
Mr Buckland said testing has been “ramped up” across the prison estate and inmates are tested before they visit court.
Ministers also faced questions about the backlog of court cases, with justice minister Chris Philp confirming there will be 60 Nightingale courts operational by the end of March.
But Mr Lammy told the Commons: “In 2010, crown court cases took 391 days to complete on average.
“By 2019 the Government had closed half of the courts and had 27,000 fewer sitting days, meaning each case took an average of 511 days. 30% fewer cases were completed but they took 75% longer.
“Each year your party is in government, justice for victims is further delayed.
“How can (Mr Philp) be so complacent announcing just 40 extra rooms?
“We have 20 Nightingale courts and the head of Her Majesty’s Court Service said we needed 200. When are we going to get them?”
Mr Philp replied: “There are a range of other measures that are being used, not least the rollout of the cloud video platform leading last week to over 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions. And, as I have said, 290 jury court rooms, more than we had before.”
Conservative chairman of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Bob Neill, asked about the long-term plan for reducing the court backlog, and Mr Philp replied: “I think it is fair to say we are expecting a very substantial increase in crown court sitting days.”