Scale of Covid outbreaks in Norfolk prisons far bigger than reported

Norwich Prison Covid

More than 200 inmates and 70 staff have been infected at HMP Norwich - Credit: Archant

Coronavirus outbreaks in Norfolk prisons were far larger during the height of the pandemic than previously reported.

Numbers obtained by this newspaper through a Freedom of Information request reveal that almost 600 prisoners and 250 staff in Norfolk’s three prisons caught the virus this winter.

It meant that some areas of the county had among the highest Covid infection rates in England. However, at the time, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) repeatedly refused to tell the public how many inmates and staff were infected.

In January, in response to a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper, the MoJ said 195 inmates at Norwich Prison had caught the virus.

Separately, the figure reported at Wayland Prison, near Watton, was 100.

However, our latest Freedom of Information request shows much larger figures. Almost 300 prisoners at HMP Norwich had Covid by the end of January - out of 750 inmates. Between the end of November and mid-February, meanwhile, 127 staff had caught the virus.

In Wayland, 222 prisoners were infected up to the middle of February and 90 staff - triple the numbers previously reported. 

The figures also show for the first time there was a large outbreak at HMP Bure near Coltishall, which was not reported at the time. More than 40 staff and 76 prisoners were infected between the start of December and mid-February. At least one prisoner died from coronavirus.

Councillor George Nobbs, whose ward includes HMP Norwich, said the MoJ had “needlessly” kept people in the dark about the outbreaks.

“These figures show that the Covid outbreak in Norfolk’s Prison Service was much worse,” he said. 

“The lesson here is that without the tenacity of this newspaper I doubt whether we would ever have got the truth about the cases in Norfolk’s prisons.

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“Excessive secrecy never pays in the long run  - I’m just glad that we have finally got the truth for the people of Norfolk.” 

The MoJ said by mid-February that there were no cases at Norwich Prison. However, the outbreak at Wayland continued. It still had 82 cases on February 15.

An MoJ spokesman said: "The quick and decisive action we have taken during the pandemic, backed by Public Health England, has helped to limit the spread of the virus in prisons and save lives.

“In March last year, Public Health England predicted up to 78,000 infections and 2,700 deaths across the prison estate. At the end of January, there had been approximately 10,000 infections and 100 deaths.”

They said all staff and new prisoners were “routinely tested”, staff were given PPE and the vaccine was being rolled out. 

However, a whistleblower said in February that there was a huge staff shortage at HMP Norwich because so many officers were infected. 

They said: “It is almost like they believed it (Covid) would never get here and when it did there was no contingency."  

Those concerns were echoed by inspectors from the prison’s Independent Monitoring Board who visited at the start of last year. 

They said: “By the end of February 2020 (when coronavirus was widely talked about in the press), the Board expressed to the governor its extreme concern that no contingency plans or guidance to staff or prisoners had been published, and that there were no extra facilities to allow for hand washing.”