The hours before a controversial Home Office charter flight to Jamaica was due to take off were mired in chaos and confusion as more than a dozen people were removed from the flight after legal challenges.
The original Home Office “long list” for the flight is believed to have had 90 names on it. But the fate of the deportation flight hung in the balance on Tuesday evening as only about one tenth remained on the schedule. Tweets from a campaign group in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and flight tracker data, suggested the plane did eventually depart.
Sanjay McLean, whose lawyers argued that he has the right to British citizenship under the Windrush rules, secured a stay of execution in an out-of-hours high court hearing. But the Home Office appealed in an attempt to get him on the plane.
Two of the men due to fly attempted suicide and were taken to hospital.
The Jamaican government continued to raise concerns about whether the people due to fly were Covid-free and had had PCR tests before being taken to the plane. Discussions about whether to grant the plane landing rights in Kingston are understood to be ongoing. Concerns were also raised by lawyers and human rights campaigners about the vulnerability of some due to fly because of advanced age and mental health problems.
There have been at least two Covid cases confirmed among Jamaicans due to board the flight at Colnbrook immigration removal centre near Heathrow where most of those due to fly were being held. Some of the others were asked to isolate after close contact with those who had tested positive.
Several people deported to Jamaica last December were found to have Covid.
The Jamaican high commissioner is among a number of senior government officials to have sent an urgent letter to the Home Office just hours before the Jamaicans were due to be collected from detention centres to be taken to the airport, calling for the flight to be halted because of concerns about the Covid cases and spread of the Delta variant of the virus.
The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) has raised concerns over Covid infection control during pre-flight procedures. The IMB pointed out that being tested for Covid before boarding a charter flight was not mandatory, although temperatures were taken and masks offered to all of those being removed.
Lou Lockhart-Mummery, the chair of the IMB’s charter flight monitoring team, told the Guardian: “We have raised concerns with the Home Office about poor operation of social distancing measures during the pre-flight procedures: the collection, muster and search processes.”
Escorts who work for the Home Office contractors Mitie have raised concerns about having to remove detainees, some of whom have refused Covid tests and have refused to wear masks. They have also expressed concern about a lack of compensation if they are forced to isolate because of Covid cases on flights. Covid cases have been confirmed on several recent summer deportation flights including on a flight to Zimbabwe last month.
A spokesperson for Mitie said: “We have robust measures to ensure a safe environment for all. This includes detailed risk assessments and procedures which have been developed in line with the latest government guidance, as well as the use of PPE such as face masks.”
The issue of deporting people who have lived most of their lives in the UK remains politically contentious. Last November the Home Office made an agreement with the Jamaican high commission not to remove people who came to the UK under the age of 12, but the agreement has not been extended to this flight. Several people who arrived in the UK as minors were still scheduled for deportation on the flight. The Home Office said that a person’s age on arrival to the UK did not exempt them from deportation.
Four women who had appointments booked to say a final farewell to their partners who were due to board the charter flight to Jamaica said they were denied the chance to say goodbye. The women said they arrived at the detention centre only to be informed they were no longer permitted to see their partners.
One of the women told the Guardian: “I don’t know what to say. This is so cruel not allowing us to say goodbye. There isn’t any humanity in the immigration system.”
A Home Office source said: “Due to an administrative error, visits were booked at a time that individuals were due to be collected for the flight. We sincerely apologise for this.”
Karen Doyle, of Movement for Justice, who has been campaigning against the flight, said: “These flights sweep up everyone. Mentally and physically unwell people, elderly, victims of trafficking and childhood abuse, care leavers and loving parents. They can’t be said to be about protecting the public when many have been out of prison for years with zero reoffending.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We only ever return those with no legal right to remain in the UK, including foreign national offenders. Those being deported will have been provided with the opportunity to raise claims prior to their deportation, and no one on the flight will be a British citizen, British national or a member of the Windrush generation. We regularly operate charter flights to different countries and in 2020 only 1% of our enforced returns were to Jamaica.”
The Jamaican high commission has been approached for comment.