Michael Clifford: Town’s anxiety over hotel goes viral

The handling of an outbreak of Covid-19 in a direct provision centre in Co Kerry has been heavily criticised by asylum seekers and the community, writes Michael Clifford.
Michael Clifford: Town’s anxiety over hotel goes viral
Helen Richmond and Andrew Scattergood bring some welcome signs to the Skellig Star Hotel in Caherciveen. Picture: Alan Landers

The handling of an outbreak of Covid-19 in a direct provision centre in Co Kerry has been heavily criticised by asylum seekers and the community, writes Michael Clifford/

Both groups are angry and alarmed at a lack of information flow, a dearth of facilities to respond to the outbreak and what both consider as a failure of the authorities to adhere to guidelines.

The perceived shortcomings have heightened fears among asylum seekers and the locals in Cahirciveen.

That in turn has introduced tensions to a town that had welcomed the new arrivals into the community just five weeks ago.

Bitter irony also attaches to the outbreak. The hotel, formerly known as the Skellig Star, was opened as a direct provision centre without any consultation locally.

At the time, the community was told that this was a pandemic emergency measure in response to overcrowding in the Dublin area.

Now there has been an outbreak of the virus in a town that heretofore was one of the safest places to be in the country in terms of possible infection.

The centre opened on March 16, two days after local people were informed that the hotel — which many thought was being renovated for the tourist season — was now contracted as a Direct Provision centre.

Over the following two weeks, up to 100 asylum seekers were dispatched to the 56-room hotel. Some had to leave work in Dublin.

According to the Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland, one woman who was transferred left the Cahirciveen Direct Provision centre and returned to Dublin where she had work and was now staying with a friend.

The new arrivals were welcomed to the town despite widespread anger over the manner in which the centre had been established.

On April 14, four residents tested positive for the virus. They were moved to a more appropriate setting in Cork.

It is unclear how they were infected. All of the residents were in this country for at least two months before being dispatched to Cahirciveen.

Prior to the lockdown announced on March 27, some had travelled up and back to Dublin.

Travelling from Cahirciveen to Dublin by public transport can take six hours.

There has been Covid 19 cases in the community in Cahirciveen and the surrounding Iveragh peninsula, but any map of infections shows the peninsula to be, to a large extent, virus free.

Following the positive results, there was no deep clean of the hotel. Such an operation could have minimised any possibility of other residents getting infected.

By the weekend just 20 other residents were tested for the virus.

Further testing was due to begin yesterday but questions arise as to why a large group of people living in cramped conditions were not tested immediately following the positive results.

There is no facility for self-isolating in the hotel.

One resident reported that all now eat in their rooms, but they must collect their food in the dining- room at the same time.

Most of the rooms are occupied by at least two people.

In some instances these roommates are not related. It is unclear what onus is on all the residents to self-isolate in such conditions.

There was no contact tracing.

The asylum seekers regularly visited the supermarkets and pharmacies as would be normal.

None of the proprietors or staff were notified that there had been an outbreak.

The Department of Justice has stated that it would only comment on a centre if there was a public health issue.

Local people believe there was, yet they were never told about it.

The Skellig Star hotel in Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry was opened as a direct provision centre without any consultation locally
The Skellig Star hotel in Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry was opened as a direct provision centre without any consultation locally

Jack Fitzpatrick, who owns The Market House shop in the town and is chair of the business and community alliance, heard through a contact in Italy that there had been an outbreak at the centre.

He contacted the manager and arranged a meeting in the town’s carpark for Saturday evening.

Mr Fitzpatrick and other community personnel were told of the infections at this meeting.

There was an agreement that food and medicines could be left at the entrance to the hotel to facilitate social distancing.

However, the Irish Examiner understands that this arrangement has not been successful.

“People are terrified,” Mr Fitzpatrick told Radio Kerry yesterday.

“We have a very ageing population here and St Anne’s community hospital is full to the limit with older people. If this gets into the community and hospital it will devastate the place.

“The authorities have been very open and transparent [at national level] at what is going on but it’s the complete opposite on the ground in these centres.”

The co-ordinator of the Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland, Lucky Khambule, says that people in the centre need to be given a room of their own so they can self-isolate properly.

“There is a lot of fear there at the moment,” he says. “People don’t want to be there. There is fear of the living arrangements.

"Fear of Covid-19. Fear of the community. It is important to think about people as human beings who are marginalised. They have no choice where to go.”

The outbreak and response arise fast on the heels of a controversy over the establishment of the centre.

Few believe the department’s position that asylum seekers had to be moved to the town in response to the emergency.

The hotel had been bought late last year by Remcoll Capital, owned by Paul Collins who runs other Direct Provision centres.

In January, the Department of Justice denied that it was going to host asylum seekers there as “there is no contract in place”.

Yet, two months later, the hotel was opened as a Direct Provision centre with no community engagement.

The asylum seekers weren’t given any notice of the move and some had to leave work they had secured in Dublin.

Yesterday, Independent TD Michael Healy Rae said he wanted to deny a rumour that he was the owner of the hotel.

He did say he was a partner in a tourism venture, Skellig Star Enterprise, last year with a person who had leased the hotel at the time.

The registered office of Skellig Star Enterprise was the hotel. He says the first he knew it was to be a Direct Provision centre was the same time as local people, on the weekend preceding March 16.

Asked whether a construction professional, JJ Harrington, who engaged in work in the hotel in recent times was a political associate of his, Mr Healy Rae said he would describe him as “a man I know for 25 years”.

He said Mr Harrington wasn’t working in the hotel prior to the arrival of the asylum seekers “or if he was, I didn’t know about it”.

“When the story broke (about the Covid-19 results) the first man I rang was JJ Harrington, I knew he was overseeing it.

"My understanding is he didn’t start working there until they (the asylum seekers) came.”

Mr Healy Rae said he has been inundated with calls from local people about fears around the outbreak.

The Department of Justice issued a statement in response to questions around measures taken at the Caherciveen direct provision centre.

“During this time, centre managers have been advised to increase the standard and frequency of cleaning throughout the centres, paying particular attention to communal areas.

In this regard, the centre staff in Caherciveen are carrying out regular cleaning of all communal areas and additionally are regularly sanitising door handles, lifts, hard surfaces etc.

In all of our accommodation centres, any room where a person that has tested positive for Covid-19 has been staying would be deep cleaned.

Some of the other measures that have been taken by centre management in Caherciveen to implement social distancing and to enhance the safety of residents are outlined below:

  • Staggered meals: only one residentat a time is allowed at the servingarea to collect their meals, they stay two metres away from staff.
  • Laundry: only one person at a time enters the laundry area to wash the clothes or collect them.
  • Sanitising areas: Hand sanitisers have been provided at the entrance of the centre so people leaving or entering the building can sanitise their hands. They have also been placed at the entrance of the dining area so people leaving or entering dining area can sanitise their hands.
  • Personal protection equipment: the centre has distributed facial masks and gloves to all staff and residents.
  • Isolation rooms: the centre has dedicated some rooms to be used as isolation rooms should GPs request this to keep some residents isolated from others. These residents are required to remain in the room allocated to them and meals are provided for them. In line with HSE guidance, staff leave the meals etc at the bedroom door and no direct contact is made between the staff and the resident.
  • The Department of Justice issued a statement in response to questions around measures taken at the Caherciveen direct provision centre.

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