A CORONAVIRUS outbreak at The Verne prison has triggered calls for staff to be vaccinated immediately - with more than 120 inmates understood to have tested positive for the virus.

The outbreak among prisoners has emerged after an area of Portland recorded the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Dorset for two weeks running.

It is understood that a number of employees are currently self isolating. The prison is a major employer on the island, and houses an average of around 539 inmates.

Portland councillor Paul Kimber, who is a chaplain at the prison, is now calling for staff to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

"This situation is absolutely devastating - not only for the Verne but for the community as well," he said.

"I am appealing to the Home Office to put measures in place for staff to be vaccinated as a matter of priority. It is absolutely critical that dedicated staff are protected. The situation is massively alarming."

The Prison Officers Association is also calling for staff to be prioritised for the vaccine.

Sarah Rigby of the Prison Officers Association, said: "Staff at the Verne have been working tirelessly throughout the wider pandemic and specifically through the current outbreak there.

"Unfortunately a lot of the prisoners held at the Verne are elderly and the accommodation there makes it difficult to isolate positive cases.

"We would appeal to the Government to prioritise prison officers in the next round of vaccines to try and stop the spread of the virus and to protect hard working prison officers, their families and the wider community they live and work in."

One individual, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "Video visits are a lifeline at present, and some of them have had to be cancelled because of staff shortages, due to self isolating.

"It is a grim time to be inside."

The number of confirmed cases was brought to light by the Verne's Independent Monitoring Board.

The Ministry of Justice declined to comment on the figures, but said measures are in place to prevent the spread.

A Prison Service spokesperson said: “Our priority is to limit the spread of the virus and protect the lives of those who live and work in our prisons.

“We have taken precautionary measures at Verne, in line with public health guidance, and will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

As reported, Government data has revealed that Underhill & The Grove has reported 58 Covid cases in the seven days to Thursday, February 18 – the most recent data available. This is an increase of 13 cases on the week before, when 45 cases were reported.

This area has the highest number of reported Covid-19 cases in Dorset. Southwell & Weston on Portland has reported six active cases.

It comes after welfare concerns for inmates and staff were raised in January as it was revealed that parts of the prison were left without heating or hot water for several weeks, due to a fault with boilers at the building.