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Frances Crook's blog · 13 Aug 2021

Vaccination in prisons

Frances Crook in front of office bookshelves

When the vaccination programme started to be rolled out, we urged the Ministry of Justice to implement a prison-by-prison strategy. This is not what happened, and now it seems that the various authorities and experts are blaming each other for the low take-up.

A whole-institution approach would mean that strong leadership could encourage everyone to take up the offer, staff and prisoners. Unventilated, enclosed and dirty prisons are a breeding ground for the virus, and the failure to get people vaccinated will result in it spilling out into families and the community unnecessarily.

All prisoners have apparently ‘been offered’ vaccination, although it is not clear exactly how encouraging or informed this offer has been. Only half of prisoners have had two vaccinations, compared to more than 75 per cent of the adult population in the community.

The story is even more desperate when it comes to prison officers, with less than half having had the first vaccination and less than a third having being doubly vaccinated.

Women, older prisoners and people in open prisons have the best take-up rates, with men in local prisons and young adults experiencing the highest hesitancy rates.

As reported in the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, the excuses people give for not getting vaccinated are disturbing: ‘It makes you gay’, ‘Your arm drops off’ and, of course, ‘It tracks you’. A whole-prison approach would stand a better chance of challenging this sort of nonsense.

It is well known that prisons are incubators of infection. John Howard campaigned way back in the eighteenth century to improve prison sanitation and healthcare as typhoid was spreading out from prisons. It eventually killed him when he caught it whilst inspecting a fever hospital in the Crimea.

Unventilated, enclosed and dirty prisons are a breeding ground for the virus, and the failure to get people vaccinated will result in it spilling out into families and the community unnecessarily

About 17,000 men, women and young prisoners, as well as 13,000 staff, are known to have tested positive for Covid. It is not known, despite my asking repeatedly, how many of these people contracted long Covid. It is likely to be particularly acute in prisons as most prisoners have serious underlying health problems and so will be particularly vulnerable. It is also not known how many staff are suffering from long Covid.

The problem is that a prisoner may not be diagnosed with long Covid – because how would they know they have got it? They spend months lying on a filthy bunk, wearing the same clothes day and night, a stodgy diet supplemented with sweets, a shower every three days, hardly any human contact and no exercise. Of course they have no energy and brain-fog.

With such low take-up of the vaccination, many more people inside prisons and their families and contacts are going to be susceptible to Covid spilling out into the community.

So why was this allowed to happen? The NHS is saying it wanted to vaccinate whole prisons and is blaming Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) for the debacle. HMPPS is blaming the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. I suspect it may have been ministers who took the decision for political reasons, as they did not want to look like they were prioritising prisoners at a time when care homes and other vulnerable people were being failed.

This matters now because there are dire warnings about a possible flu epidemic this winter. I hope that plans for flu jabs are well in hand for whole prisons, or we will see people dying from flu who have already been weakened by long Covid.

It is time for the prisons to get a grip and ensure that they match the population at large, with more prisoners and staff vaccinated for Covid, and to plan for flu vaccinations as soon as they become available.

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