Forty vulnerable women and children, including a newborn baby and mother with Covid-19, were left for hours over the weekend without power on Friday and Saturday in a Serco-run house for asylum seekers.
The young families, already self-isolating due to a confirmed case of the virus inside the house, went without heating or lights and feared their food would spoil as they tried to reach contractor Serco, which operates the house on behalf of the Home Office. HuffPost UK is not locating the house for safeguarding reasons.
Alongside women living at the house, staff at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) said they and charity Migrant Help – established as the official link between residents and Serco – had spent around seven hours attempting to get through to the company on Friday evening, but were initially unable to reach anyone through either the main or out-of-hours phone lines.
Michelle, 29, has lived in the house for around eighteen months and told HuffPost UK that the power in the house had been a problem since she moved in.
She said: “In my opinion it comes down to Serco never actually fixing the house but always coming, putting sellotape on something, and then it gets worse and worse.
“It’s a massive building with about 40 of us living here. The issue starts with the boiler, the radiators leak, they don’t get warm, so since last winter we’ve had to end up buying our own electrical heaters to keep ourselves warm as sometimes the radiator would switch off in the middle of the night.
“We’re not allowed to have our housing officer’s number, we’re not allowed to have Serco’s number, and sometimes when you call Migrant Help you have to wait in the queue for up to six hours to report a heating issue.”
After around seven hours without power an electrician arrived on Friday evening and temporarily fixed the issue, but told the women it could take up to five days for a permanent solution to the problem. By Saturday morning the power had again failed.
The JCWI said Serco CEO Rupert Soames had told the charity on Saturday afternoon that power had been restored to the property, but it was not clear whether it was a temporary or permanent fix.
A spokesperson for Serco denied ongoing issues with the power or any further outages after Friday evening, telling HuffPost UK: “The issue was fixed at around 8pm on Friday evening, four hours after we had been notified. Our team returned on Saturday to double check that everything was ok and there were no further issues with the power.”
Both the women and the Home Office itself confirmed that there were, in fact, issues with the power that lasted for several hours on Saturday. Serco did not respond to questions about its apparently misleading statement.
The spokesperson did not respond to questions about how Serco was making the property Covid-safe, allegations that the women had been told to stop calling the helpline or whether or not they would be given any help with replacing spoiled food.
Living on less than £40 a week, residents were left terrified they would be unable to replace the fresh food they bought for their babies after the fridges shut down. With a confirmed case of Covid-19 in the house, the women had already stocked up as far as possible to feed their children during the self-isolation period.
Michelle said: “On Friday we went half an entire day with no electricity. It was quite stressful as the channels of communication they have provided for us is Migrant Help, who tried to contact Serco who are either unavailable or take their time.
“It was so frustrating. When I told the helper on the line from Migrant Help that the food in our fridges was getting spoiled she told us that if it went bad we could just call charity organisations for help. The charities are already overwhelmed, and we would be 40 new mouths to feed with very specific needs for toddlers and babies.
“We have sacrificed so much money already because we were told that we have to isolate. We’re on five pounds a day, we have bought enough food for our kids so we can then isolate for a safe number of days.
“It’s going to be a dangerous thing if our food goes bad and all 40 of us have to go out to get food for our children.”
Migrant Help were unable to provide HuffPost UK with a comment for this article.
The communication issues with Serco persisted after the power went out on Saturday, Michelle said, with a member of staff telling worried residents to stop calling for help.
She told HuffPost UK: “Obviously we started calling again first thing in the morning. Normally when the electricity trips you can fix it yourself, but the way they’d fixed it on Friday meant you couldn’t do that.
“After we started to call Migrant Help again we got our first ever call from an actual Serco manager who said ‘you are overloading the system with your calls’. What were we supposed to do? Our kids are hungry, our food is going bad.
“If you put people in such a building then you must be willing to pay a lot of money for regular maintenance. It takes a toll on the house.”
A Home Office spokesperson told HuffPost UK on Sunday that a technician was due to visit the house on Monday to implement a more permanent solution to the power issues, after more than a year of complaints from residents who have dealt with persistent problems.
Satbir Singh, chief executive of the JCWI said: “It’s outrageous that Serco have left a group of vulnerable women and children freezing, uncared for and with no guarantee of electricity or heating for days.
“This is the same company who run a test and trace system for 65 million people, yet in this instance they told a group of 20 worried mums to stop ringing for help as they were ‘overloading their phone lines’.
“This is simply unacceptable. Everyone needs safe and decent housing, particularly in an unprecedented pandemic. The Home Office must now investigate Serco’s failure to provide this, and stop outsourcing the safety of migrants to companies with a track record of neglect, abuse and incompetence.”
Relying on shared facilities including the kitchen and bathrooms, women in the house were already concerned about the risk of contracting the virus, especially after a confirmed case – a mother with a newborn baby – was identified in the house. Without heating, lights and electricity to heat up food for their children, they say the situation has become even more dangerous.
Michelle’s son has serious health problems, and recently spent four weeks in and out of hospital after catching a cold – leaving Michelle extremely fearful of the risks posed by Covid-19.
She has spent most of the pandemic so far trying to isolate in her room with her son, who has missed a number of key milestones including starting to walk due to the lack of space. In order to avoid communal spaces as much as possible she has been forced to store and cook most of her food, as well as dry their laundry, inside one small room.
The majority of the women in the house, she said, are doing the same.
She said: “My one-year old has a heart defect and underlying conditions and obviously I’ve been uneasy having her in the building. Since the day she [the resident with Covid-19] left hospital I’ve been trying to ask what is going to happen to my son.
“The housing officer told her that she wouldn’t be sent to her own place to isolate, she should isolate in her room, even though she’s just given birth. She can’t go to the kitchen that we all share, she’s struggling to go to the bathroom.”
A spokesperson for the Home Office told HuffPost UK that “asylum seekers are being asked to maintain social distancing”, but in large shared houses with communal facilities, this has proven incredibly difficult.
Michelle, who was granted asylum earlier in November, has been temporarily moved out of the house by her lawyers to protect the health of her and her son. She is still waiting for written confirmation of her status from the Home Office but has been told to expect a delay, and will have to move back into the Serco house until she is formally granted leave to remain in the UK.
Despite concerns over Serco’s contract with the Home Office being raised numerous times in the past, the company – who are also responsible for the failing Covid Test and Trace scheme – were awarded a new £200m contract in February to run two detention centres.
Earlier in November the Liverpool Echo reported claims from an asylum seeker that he had been “congratulated” on becoming homeless by a “cruel” Serco housing officer.
The contractor was also severely criticised in 2019 for evicting asylum seekers in Scotland by changing the locks, leaving them homeless, although the courts did eventually rule that Serco’s actions were lawful.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We take the wellbeing of asylum seekers in our care extremely seriously and have worked closely with Serco, local public health authorities and stakeholders to ensure that the appropriate measures are in place and the site is safe and secure.
“Serco addressed the power outages this weekend in line with their contract and an electrician will permanently fix the issue on Monday.”