On a bright April day in 2020, a rubber dinghy crammed with migrants floundered in peril in the sea off Hastings. Overloaded with men, women and children, many of them screaming for help, the craft had been blown off course towards the East Sussex town after launching from a beach 40 miles away in France. It was hopelessly lost.
Britain had been in lockdown for nearly three weeks as Covid swept the country. In northern France, the pandemic was wreaking havoc in shanty camps where charity workers claimed migrants were sniffling and coughing with high temperatures as they waited for traffickers to dispatch them across the Channel.
It was in this atmosphere of fear and alarm about Covid that a lifeboat was sent from Hastings by the British Coastguard to rescue those frightened souls lost in their boat off the South Coast. The migrants were found in the flimsy craft a mile off shore. ‘They were in a bad state, they looked very sickly,’ the Mail has been told. ‘They had lost their way crossing the Channel to Dover. It was a real emergency.’
What happened next is the subject of much conjecture at Hastings lifeboat station — as well as within our most famous seafaring charity, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
It is also crucial to a growing controversy that is rocking the RNLI.