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Bibby Stockholm: Councillor says NHS on Portland “hanging on by a thread”

Kallum Gethins

ByKallum Gethins

Jul 3, 2023
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Health services are already “hanging on by a thread” in a town where 500 migrants will soon be housed on a barge, a councillor has warned.

The Bibby Stockholm is due to arrive in Portland, Dorset, next month where it will accommodate men who are claiming asylum in the UK.

Dorset councillor Jon Orrell said cuts had led to a shortage of NHS provision in the town which he feared would be blamed on the arrival of the barge

Bibby Stockholm - PA


NHS Dorset has been asked to comment.

Mr Orrell, a former GP, said the migrant barge would only create a “small amount of extra work” for GPs, adding: “The problem isn’t the refugees, it’s the already desperate understaffing.

“The danger is that people will blame the refugees for a crisis in the NHS that’s not their fault.”

The councillor, who represents Weymouth’s Melcombe Regis ward, has put his concerns to the Dorset Integrated Care Board – NHS Dorset – ahead of a meeting on Thursday.

He said: “Weymouth and Portland once had four hospitals with wards full of beds. Now we have one with beds.

“We had eight GP surgeries, now we have six. Two of them hanging on by a thread with not enough doctors.

“Portland Minor Injuries Unit (MIU) is repeatedly closed.”

He said the board could ask the Home Office to fund “an urgent restoration” of NHS services before sending the barge – reopening Portland Hospital beds and permanently reopening the MIU.

“To fail in these risks harming community cohesion,” he said.

The councillor said agency staff “at premium rates” would be needed to run the services initially.

Earlier this month, Dorset Council announced it would not challenge the Home Office’s decision to bring the 222-room, three-storey barge to Portland.

The council said it believed legal action would be unlikely to succeed and incur high costs for taxpayers.

A Home Office spokesman said: “We are continuing to work extremely closely with Dorset and Portland councils, as well as the local NHS and police services, to manage any impact in Portland and address the local communities’ concerns, including through substantial financial support.”

The forthcoming arrival of the Bibby Stockholm project in Portland, which aims to house 500 asylum seekers, has sparked discussions about the potential implications for the area’s infrastructure and the ways in which asylum seekers might contribute to the local community.

Challenges for Existing Infrastructure

The accommodation of 500 asylum seekers poses challenges for Portland’s existing infrastructure. Adequate provisions for housing, healthcare, education, and transportation must be considered to meet the increased demand. It is crucial for local authorties and relevant organisations to assess the capacity of infrastructure and devise effective plans to address any potential strains that may arise. Adequate planning and collaboration can help ensure the smooth integration of asylum seekers into the community. In a statement Portland Port said:

Preparations are ongoing for the smooth arrival and operation of the Bibby Stockholm barge at the commercial port in Dorset.

They include discussions between the Home Office and local agencies about health provision, policing and community support.

Bill Reeves, chief executive of Portland Port, said: “We are encouraged by the progress being made by the Home Office and local agencies.

“Some of these plans are still being drawn together by ourselves, the Home Office and a local Multi Agency Forum but we are providing as much information as possible through our website, the media and elected representatives.

“We are aware of misunderstandings locally and hope people will have patience and refer to the factual information available and our clarification of some of the facts.”

The Home Office approached Portland Port some months ago, initially through a ship’s agent, to enquire about berthing a vessel to house refugees; the port did not approach the Home Office.

It was made clear to the port that the enquiry was to be handled in strict confidence, which is normal for prospective customers of the port.

Once the Home Office said that it wanted to proceed to an agreement, the port committed its support.

Bill said: “The port has good relationships with key government departments and always wants to respond positively when asked for support.

“Furthermore, the berthing of vessels is clearly a key element of the port’s core business.

“In addition to the motivation of responding positively to the Home Office the port will, of course, be making a profit from the project.

“Making a profit from operations is what well run private companies do. In the case of Portland Port, most of our profits are reinvested in the business.

“In fact, in the last eight years the port has invested more than £40 million in developing its infrastructure and more than £3 million in repairs and maintenance. It is this investment that has enabled the port’s continued growth and development, not least in the growth of the cruise business.

“This investment also underpins the continued good health of the business, which in turn has supported a 25% growth in people employed by the port itself.

“Companies that make good profits, if they reinvest them in the business, bring significant benefits to the local community in which they operate.”

Portland Port also set out that:

  • When the Bibby Stockholm arrives there will be a core staff who have experience of managing this type of facility for asylum seekers. The management company may seek to recruit locally for some of the additional roles onboard.
  • The Home Office continues to work closely with Dorset Council and key partners including the local NHS and Police to manage any impact on key local services in Portland, and address the local communities’ concerns, including through financial support.
  • Funding for the local NHS is likely to be focused on ensuring that primary care is provided on the barge for asylum seekers.
  • When the Bibby Stockholm arrives in Portland Port it will be connected to the port’s fresh water and mains sewage network. The port will also provide non-sewage liquid waste and dry waste disposal services through its existing, on-site, facilities.
  • Once the barge has arrived and been connected to the port’s services the first group of asylum seekers will arrive. The numbers on board will be scaled up over several weeks so that each new group can be absorbed in a structured manner.
  • Asylum seekers will have been through a ‘suitability screening’ process that includes physical and mental health screening. All asylum seekers housed on the barge will be adult males with an age range of 18 to 65.
  • Asylum seekers will receive cultural awareness advice aimed at ensuring they understand the social norms in the UK; the process of familiarisation has already begun as the asylum seekers are in the country and in the system.
  • Asylum seekers will be subject to a code of conduct about their behaviour, including when out in the community.
  • Asylum seekers will not be free to move around the port. When on port property they will be kept on the Bibby Stockholm or in a secure compound adjacent to the barge.  Facilities in the compound will be finalised once their requirements are better understood.
  • Portland port will provide a bus service to take asylum seekers from the secure compound out of the port to destinations that will be agreed with local agencies. The objective is for most of these destinations to be linked to activities arranged through the local community and voluntary sector. Asylum seekers will not be simply dropped off or ‘dumped’ in one location.

A Multi Agency Forum (MAF), made up of local, regional and national representatives from Dorset Council, local NHS, Dorset Police, public agencies and community organisations, is meeting weekly to plan and co-ordinate arrangements for the smooth operation of the facility.

This includes provision of health services, safety and security, regulatory arrangements, and voluntary sector involvement.

There are sub-groups linked to the MAF, including one for the voluntary and community sector.

The MAF will be able to draw on best practice and experience gained at an accommodation facility at Napier Barracks in Folkestone, Kent, which was opened in 2020 and has housed a changing population of 328 adult male asylum seekers.

Activity at Napier has included the formation of a ‘friends of Napier’ group and a strong programme of activities for asylum seekers, including English lessons, recreation, religious support, volunteering and sport.

Bill said: “The port is aware that the Napier facility, albeit land based is very similar to what is being planned with the barge that will be berthed in Portland.

“The experience in Folkestone is that there has been no increase in crime in the area as a consequence of the Napier project and asylum seekers absconding has been rare.

“The support of the community has been absolutely fundamental to the success at Napier, and we are grateful for the support of those working through the MAF to consider ways of replicating this experience here.”

Opportunities for Community Engagement

While the arrival of a large number of asylum seekers poses infrastructure challenges, it also presents opportunities for community engagement and development. Asylum seekers often bring diverse backgrounds and valuable skills, which could contribute positively to the local community. By implementing initiatives such as community work programmes and employment opportunities, Portland can facilitate the integration of asylum seekers and harness their potential contributions.

  1. Community Work Programs: The establishment of community work programs can provide asylum seekers with opportunities to contribute to the community while they await the completion of their asylum processes. Such programs could involve activities like urban gardening, maintaining public spaces, providing language tutoring, or volunteering with local organizations. Engaging asylum seekers in community work not only helps alleviate potential strains on existing infrastructure but also fosters a sense of belonging and empowerment among participants.
  2. Employment Opportunities: If asylum seekers’ asylum processes are accepted, allowing them to work can benefit both individuals and the local economy. Many asylum seekers possess valuable skills and professional experience that can address labor gaps in various industries. Collaborating with local businesses and implementing job training programs can aid in integrating asylum seekers into the workforce, promoting economic growth and diversifying the community.

Support and Integration Services

To ensure the successful integration of asylum seekers, comprehensive support services must be provided. These services should include language and cultural orientation classes, access to healthcare and mental health services, educational opportunities, and legal assistance. Collaboration with local nonprofits, volunteer organizations, and advocacy groups can help establish a robust support network, facilitating the well-being and successful integration of asylum seekers.

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