South Yorkshire Migration & Asylum Action Group continues to investigate and support people confined in horrendous conditions during the Covid-19 lock down.
Neglect of Christine, put in an isolation house
Video of Christine in a Mears Covid-19 isolation house in Newcastle, 27 March
Christine, who is a 37-year-old married professional worker from the Middle East, told her story to me, through an interpreter on Sunday 29 March:
On 23 March about 11 am I was coughing, and I went to see the nurse in Urban House. She said she thought I had a chest infection and she was suspicious it may be coronavirus. She asked me to go to my room and stay there and not come out for lunch. The nurse came at 11.30 and told me I was moving to a new house. I was really happy for I had been in a Leeds hotel for a month and then Urban House for another month waiting to be sent to a house. The nurse did not say that the house was a temporary isolation house. Some of my friends brought me food from the canteen.
At 1.30 I was told that ‘there is a taxi waiting for you’. I said goodbye to everyone, hugged and kissed them. When I got into the taxi the driver asked, ‘Who’s paying for this?’ I said, ‘I have no money’. The taxi driver went to reception and they said they were paying.
(Mears have the asylum transport contracts for Yorkshire and the North East as part of their £1.15 bn ten-year contract and have minibuses, vans etc.)
I asked the taxi driver where he was taking me. He said to Newcastle. I was really sad because I have friends in Leeds, and I was hoping to get a place there. I arrived around 3 pm. The house manager met me at the one-bedroomed house and told me to sign to accept the house. ‘You are’, he said, ‘in quarantine for 14 days you have got coronavirus and cannot go out.’
I panicked and was very afraid. He did not offer me any interpreting service, so I rang my friends at Urban House and one of them interpreted for me. I refused to sign for the house. He said he would get me food for four days, and asked what I would like to eat. After an hour, he came back with some food and tea and coffee and I signed. He said he would bring more food after four days and come and see me every two days. I have never seen him since – six days ago. I never got any more food. No-one from Mears has come here to see me.
He did not even notice how cold the house was, I had to ring them, and Mears brought two heaters. By 9 o’clock my cough was getting worse. At 10 o’clock I rang 999 and a paramedic arrived. He said I had a chest infection and it might be coronavirus. He gave me a letter to give to Mears for paracetamol. Mears did not come back so I had no paracetamol.
For nearly five days I had no hot water to wash my hands or have a shower. I had no gas to cook with. I rang Migrant Help again and again waiting every time. By the 25 and 26 March they were saying that because of coronavirus it could be a week before they would repair the boiler. They said on 26 March, “Don’t call us any more they will be there in five days”.
“I had nothing in the house no toiletries of any kind for a woman. On 26 March I contacted a friend who texted you. He told me that you then emailed Mears.”
A food parcel and a five-minute repair
I sent my emails off to senior management at Mears and received acknowledgements. Asylum Matters contacted the North East management. Around 12 noon Mears workers arrived and took around five minutes to get the hot water and gas on for Christine. Migration and Justice, the local asylum rights group in Newcastle, organised a food and toiletries delivery to Christine by the early evening. Christine had asked, through her friend, for: ‘Food, honey, lemon, onions, salt, milk, cereals, toiletries such as shampoo, period pads, hand-wash liquid, washing machine liquid, mask, gloves, and Paracetamol tablets and some tablets for sleeping because it’s about 5 nights that she couldn’t sleep well and she also she has a urinary infection so she needs vagina tablets Clotrimazole.’
On Sunday Christine told me that her cough was still bad. ‘I have rung 111 on Friday and they said that they will come but it may take some time. I have food now, but I still can’t face eating.’
The Mears housing manager said on the first day that he would return with food after four days and come to see her every two days.
After eight days on Monday 30 March a delivery woman from a local supermarket came to Christine’s door and said the packages of food and household supplies had been ordered by Mears. Mears failed even to order paracetamol and instead sent Anadin Extra, not recommended to treat symptoms of coronavirus.
Christine was angry and tearful about the way Mears was treating her when I spoke to her on Tuesday 31 March through an interpreter.
“I think that it is disgraceful, unfair against my human rights and not justice. I am abandoned here. Mears and none tells me whether I really have corona virus. I cannot speak English I cannot even ask my neighbours for help. Mears have never given me or sent me any information about coronavirus. I do not understand English and I have no idea what is going on.”
Urban House: no lock down, no checks
While people are in Urban House, they normally have to sign in twice a day to certify that they are still there. I was interested to know what was happening in Urban House after the national lock down was announced on Monday 23 March. On Sunday 29 March, I spoke through an interpreter, to Adrian who is still in Urban House. ‘There have been no checks here since Sunday 22nd March,’ he said. ‘It is getting really quiet. Lots of people have simply left and are staying with relatives. They don’t seem to be sending people in here anymore.’
Urban House: still no social distancing
I asked Michael inside Urban House to take pictures of their Friday evening meal and breakfast on Saturday in Urban House. The Home Office had been contacted about the issue on Thursday by journalists. Diane Abbott, shadow Home Secretary had told the Independent on Friday that the conditions (in Urban House) were ‘simply unacceptable’, adding: ‘Everyone needs to take social distancing measures seriously, and those in authority need to ensure social distancing is possible for everyone in their care.’
Here are the pictures.
Chris from inside Urban House sent me another video showing how many shared doors and door handles he had to touch and grasp before getting to the canteen where, of course, there is no hand sanitiser or anti-bacterial wipes available.
Urban House: pregnant women at risk
SYMAAG has been taking toiletries, new clothes, new children’s clothes and toys, donated in Sheffield through Baby Basics and other charities, into Urban House for weeks, up to the lockdown. Urban House has banned gifts of second- hand clothes from Wakefield charities.
Over the past week, I have continued to receive a series of texts from people inside Urban House. Kirstie contacted me on Thursday 26 March. ‘This is Kirstie I have heard that you can give people here things like shampoo and conditioner and soap. My roommate and I are 2 girls and she is pregnant; she really loves fruit and biscuits as well.’
I asked a Wakefield charity to help. They said they would try and get toiletries to the women. ‘We’ll try and get some treats, but no one can take fruit into Urban House.’ I told Kirstie by text. On Friday Kirstie texted, ‘We haven’t received toiletries yet, but one boy gave us last night a few shampoo and cream, we were able to take a shower today. I am new here, but I see so many people here are pregnant … and the food is the same [for them]. Fortunately, restaurant gives us today apple and thank you.’
So why under Covid-19 conditions is a pregnant woman sharing a room with an unrelated woman?
Why is there no special food, fruit or toiletries provided in Urban House for pregnant women?
Urban House: ‘I am afraid of the Coronavirus’
On Friday 27 March I was sent a WhatsApp message from Simon inside Urban House.
Please help me I’ve been here for 40 days and have been told twice I am moving to a home but both cancelled. I have no security here and have a heart problem and no one is here to help me … I have no money no disinfectants, no proper clothes and I’m afraid of the Corona virus and I’m worried about my wife and daughter they are in … I also call Mears a couple of times and they said he was going to leave the house empty for you yet and you have to wait.
If the Home Office will not act, will the NHS? On Sunday afternoon I contacted the NHS walk-in centre in Wakefield to find out whether I could get medical assistance for Simon and they advised that he should ring 111.
I also reported the suspected case of coronavirus in Urban House and the total lack of social distancing and care for pregnant women in a time of Covid-19.
Information on Covid-19 from Mears?
On Saturday 28 March, Mears issued a statement to say that the company
‘Has ensured that all service users have translated guidance on how to respond to Covid-19 and what is required of them.’
Weeks into the Covid-19 epidemic and two days into the lock down period, on Wednesday 25 March, I rang Mears tenants on Tyneside, Teesside and Sheffield to ask whether they had received any information about the Covid-19 health emergency.
Dorothy in Sheffield told me ‘We have had absolutely nothing – no information at all. Housing managers usually put information notices on my notice board but there is nothing. I have had no circulars or letters in English and different languages.’
I asked Christine’s friend who contacted me on the 26 March whether Christine had been left any information in her own language or in English by Mears about Coronavirus and what she should do, when they left her in isolation. ‘Nothing at all John, I had to translate from the UK government website the official guidance for her.’
Videos with NHS guidance on Covid-19 have been translated into several languages by Open Doors International Language schools, view here: https://m.youtube.com/user/opendoorsplymouth/playlists
This article could not have been written without the brilliant networking skills and interpreting skills of Manuchehr M.D.
SYMAAG’s solidarity project over the past six months to expose the reality of the Mears housing contracts in Yorkshire for people in asylum housing, and the negligent treatment of people in Urban House IAC hostel in Wakefield, has depended on a collective campaign. We have witnessed and reported on an incredible and unique resistance network developed by people themselves, residents in asylum housing, and in Urban House and the overspill hotels.
In SYMAAG we feel privileged to have been able to have given people a voice for their testimonies, and grateful to the Institute of Race Relations for publishing and disseminating them. Many people in the asylum system have acted as interpreters for us, including a young Kurdish Sorani interpreter who has to remain anonymous. The collective solidarity campaign has involved asylum rights groups like Migration and Justice based in Newcastle, DEWA women’s group in Sheffield, and Asylum Matters organisers in Yorkshire and the North East.