Reading council seeks closure of quarantine hotel after Covid outbreak

A council is threatening to shut down one of the government’s quarantine hotels for foreign travellers over fears that infection control failures led to a Covid outbreak among guests spreading to the local community.

Reading council accused the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) of being “very irresponsible” after ignoring its repeated concerns about safety failings at the Penta hotel in Reading town centre.

The hotel has had an outbreak of 44 cases among staff and residents, and the council has demanded it close after three people in the community contracted the virus after coming into contact with infected staff.

The government is resisting the demand, prompting the council to explore its powers under health protection laws. Meanwhile, guests are fearful of the virus spreading and frustrated at what were described as “solitary confinement” conditions in the hotel.

The council leader, Jason Brock, said: “We will look at all the options available – we have a public health duty of care to the guests in the hotel as well as our residents.”

He said he wanted to avoid using enforcement powers and appealed to the DHSC to work constructively with the council to tackle the outbreak.

Brock said the council’s chief executive privately wrote to the DHSC at the end of last month stressing the seriousness of the concerns when evidence first emerged that the hotel outbreak had spread to the community.

He said the DHSC declined to address failures in health protocols identified by council inspectors, and when the council went public with its call to close the hotel on Wednesday, this was also ignored.

David Earp, 62, one of about 300 people quarantined in the hotel, is backing the council’s attempt to shut it down. Earp, who runs a charity in Kolkata, flew to London on Monday because his business visa had run out. He was required to pay the standard £1,750 for the compulsory 10-day quarantine stay, meaning he is paying £175 per night at a hotel that usually charges from £59. “If I get Covid staying here I’ll be so angry,” he said. He tested negative before flying from Bengaluru.

Earp said conditions in the hotel were testing his already fragile mental health after enduring two lockdowns in India. “I don’t even know if I’m thinking straight because it’s solitary confinement here. I have Netflix, and friends I can talk to on the phone, but I’m stuck in a hotel room and I can’t leave. And there’s not enough room to exercise. You’re not allowed to use a gym. You can only leave the room for 15 minutes, if there is a security guard to take you.”

He added: “It feels like nobody here knows what they are doing, but it not their fault. I would close the place down – let the people here complete their quarantine, let them go one by one, including me, and then shut it down.”

Brock wants the DHSC to accept a phased closure. He said: “They need to accept the principle that the hotel needs to close. There should not be community transmission, and a sensible mitigation would be not to have a quarantine hotel in the middle of a very busy town. But it seems they are entirely uninterested in constructively engaging with us. It’s pretty abysmal and very irresponsible.”

A DHSC spokesperson said the hotel was implementing strict infection control measures. “There was a small localised outbreak at this managed quarantine facility, which was identified by our enhanced testing regime. Local public health teams have finished investigating and all individuals who have had a positive test result have been instructed to quarantine for 10 days from the day of the test,” she said. “We continue to work closely with Public Health England and local stakeholders to ensure the safety of the guests, staff working in the hotel and the wider community.”

Brock described this response as “disappointing”. He said it “appears to ignore entirely our assessment that safety protocols are still not being properly enforced. Moreover, they play fast and loose by referring to outbreak in the singular.”

Separately, Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the newly created UK Health Security Agency, warned on Thursday that the UK was not going in the right direction on coronavirus cases, as infections rise across the country.

Harries said modelling data suggested there would be a further rise in cases in the coming weeks. However, she stressed it was too early to make a decision on ending lockdown on 21 June and it would take another week before a clearer picture emerged.

“We are progressing, probably as a country, not quite in the right direction that we would all want to,” she said. “Cases are rising, I think that is becoming clearer, and modelling does suggest that we would start to see a further rise, not necessarily immediately but in coming weeks.”

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