Almost twice as many Covid-related deaths in prisons in England and Wales have been recorded in the second wave as in the first. Between October 2020 and 18 January 2021, 51 prisoners died with the virus, compared to 27 between March and June 2020.
There have also been far more cases, even after taking into account more extensive testing. Throughout the final months of 2020, cases in prison seemed to ebb and flow in line with the tightening and easing of restrictions in the community. The week ending 21 December looked to be the peak: 800 cases then, falling to only several hundred in the weeks after. But early January has seen a sharp resurgence of the virus, with cases doubling weekly.
A startling 1,300 new cases were recorded in the week ending 18 January 2021 alone. 70 of 119 prisons currently have outbreaks, meaning at least one prisoner testing positive in an institution.
In early January, all prisons moved back to the second, most restrictive, stage of the national framework. Regimes are less strict than those imposed in the first lockdown in spring 2020, and adaptations have been made to mitigate their impact.
Reports in December indicated that prisoners and prison staff would be vaccinated in line with the general population, i.e. depending on the risk group they fall into. There are a number of reasons why prisoners should actually be prioritised in the vaccination programme, especially if the government stalls demands to release many more prisoners, as it has done.
Prisoners do not have the autonomy to manage their own safety, despite being in a high-risk environment. Higher rates of infection have been recorded among prisoners compared to the general population. Greater proportions of prisoners suffer from illnesses known to increase the risk of developing more severe symptoms from coronavirus. Prisons pose an ongoing risk of transmission into the community when prisoners are released and as staff enter and leave institutions. There are now growing calls from across the political spectrum for prisoners to be prioritised for the vaccine. Without it, prisons may be in lockdown until months after restrictions in the community are eased, as was the case in summer 2020.