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Justice Secretary Robert Buckland calls ‘out-of-control’ Covid cases in prisons a ‘myth’

CLAIMS that Covid-19 is “spiralling out of control” in prisons were branded a myth by Justice Secretary Robert Buckland today, despite MPs warning of a spike in deaths.

Mr Buckland told Parliament that two-thirds of the prison estate in England and Wales have “no outbreaks at all” or outbreaks of “fewer than 10,” despite government figures showing the deaths of 24 prisoners were linked to Covid-19 in December, bringing the total to 71.

It comes as the University and College Union (UCU) warned that prison education staff are being put at risk by bosses forcing them to take part in face-to-face activities during the latest lockdown.

Labour’s Zarah Sultana told the Commons: “Covid-19 is spiralling out of control in our prisons. In December, deaths surged by 50 per cent and cases by 70 per cent.

“But unlike the last lockdown, the government is insisting that non-essential workers go in and out of prisons every day — risking spreading the virus.”

Mr Buckland replied: “She must not repeat the myth that Covid-19 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 lockdown.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady has written to Mr Buckland, saying that England and Wales’s biggest prison education provider Novus was refusing to properly engage with the union, putting staff at risk.

Members last month delivered a damning vote of no confidence in John Thornhill, the CEO of Novus’s parent group, LTE, after reporting breaches of social distancing, unclean toilets, insufficient PPE and exclusion from prison vaccine programmes.

The union also claims that staff have been discouraged by local management from reporting these extensive health and safety breaches.

Ms Grady said: “We hope that the government will take note of the current problems within Novus and ask why management are refusing to engage properly with UCU. 

“It is incredibly frustrating that Mr Thornhill continues to refuse to meet with our chosen representatives to discuss how to deliver prison education safely.

“Staff health may be being put at risk. Mr Thornhill now needs to consider his position, and LTE’s board must urgently address staff concerns.”

LTE said at no point has it refused to meet with UCU to discuss health and safety matters, and that it could evidence many meetings over an extended period.

The group said it proactively manages health and safety matters via its “risk management framework,” an approach that has helped to effectively control and limit levels of on-site Covid-19 transmission.

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