By Muvija M and Andrew MacAskill
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain is taking a group of asylum seekers off a barge just days after moving them onto the vessel because Legionella bacteria was found in the water supply, an embarrassment for the government as it tries to showcase a tough new immigration policy.
Britain began moving the asylum seekers onto the Bibby Stockholm, a barge anchored off Dorset on the south coast, earlier this week as part of its high-profile strategy to deter people from arriving in the country on small boats.
The policy was controversial before it got underway. Ministers said they wanted to reduce the cost of accommodating asylum seekers in hotels, while human rights campaigners compared the barge to a prison ship and said its use was in inhumane.
"Environmental samples from the water system on the Bibby Stockholm (barge) have shown levels of Legionella bacteria which require further investigation," a spokesperson at the Home Office, or interior ministry, said.
"As a precautionary measure, all 39 asylum seekers who arrived on the vessel this week are being disembarked while further assessments are undertaken."
The hulking three-story barge can house around 500 people in over 200 bedrooms, and more people had been expected to be moved in over the coming weeks.
The bacteria discovered in the water supply can cause Legionnaires' disease, a lung infection that the British health service describes as uncommon but "very serious".
The government said nobody onboard had presented with symptoms of the disease, and that it was working closely with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and following its advice.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's government has spent the week making announcements about its efforts to reduce the number of asylum seekers, hoping to win support from voters as the ruling Conservative Party trails in opinion polls.
Sunak has made cracking down on illegal immigration one of his five main priorities and hopes a fall in arrivals might help his party pull off an unexpected win at the next national election.
The opposition Labour Party said on Friday: "The Conservatives have slogans and gimmicks, but no real solutions."
(Reporting by Muvija M and Andrew MacAskillEditing by Kate Holton and Frances Kerry)