The Home Office spent more than £1m on deporting hundreds of people at the height of the lockdown, despite government instructions warning against all non-essential travel, The Independent can reveal.
New figures show 285 individuals were removed to Albania, Romania, Lithuania and Poland on seven charter flights between 1 April and 30 June 2020, along with 374 escorts, at a cost to the taxpayer of £1,105,931.
One of the deportees was a Polish woman who had lived in the UK for 10 years and was removed on the basis of a shoplifting conviction for which she spent six months in jail, forcing her to leave her 11-year-old son behind.
The data, obtained through a freedom of information request by campaign group No Deportations, show there were three flights chartered to Romania, two to Albania and one to both Poland and Lithuania. The deportees were made up of 268 men and 17 women.
They departed from the UK at a time when the government had issued stay-at-home instructions stating that people should not fly unless it was essential, and when international air travel had dropped by 95 per cent.
The Independent understands that no Covid-19 testing was undertaken for those on the flights. The Home Office said those being returned were seen by a healthcare professional prior to departure, and that anyone exhibiting symptoms would be removed from the flight and placed into protective isolation.
Labour MP Diane Abbott said the fact that the government was deporting people in the middle of a global pandemic was a “scandal”, adding: “It seems that maintaining draconian immigration practices was more important to the government than public health.”
Celia Clarke, director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said: “At a time when we were all urged to stay at home to save lives and protect the NHS, the Home Office quietly continued to detain and remove people.”
She said the sums involved were “staggering”, pointing out that it was in addition to the £8.2m paid out in the last year in compensation to people detained unlawfully.
The new figures will prompt further anger when considered alongside the alleged failure by the UK government to charter a sufficient number of flights to repatriate Britons stranded abroad by the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, a report by a cross-party committee of MPs said the government’s operation to assist 1.3 million British nationals was “too slow”, while other nations acted more swiftly by booking charter flights.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, accused the Home Office of “squandering hard-earned taxpayer cash on unsafe and unfair forced removals”, and called for “urgent reform” of the UK’s “unjust and expensive” deportation laws.
Helen Baron, trainee solicitor at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, said it was “outrageous” that this sum of money was spent on charter flights at a time when the Home Office was maintaining that delays to decision making on claims and processing residence permits were the result of “overstretched capacity and resources”.
“It is horrifying to think how many lives they have put at risk prioritising immigration detention and forced removals during a pandemic,” she added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We make no apology whatsoever for seeking to remove dangerous foreign criminals and immigration offenders. We only remove people when it is safe to do so and public health guidance is adhered to on all removal flights.”