The government on Friday signalled it would largely end detentions of EU citizens suspected of coming to work in the UK without permission, after an outcry over incidents of people being taken to immigration removal centres.

The Home Office said it had “updated” its guidance to immigration officers to “clarify” that overseas nationals who had been refused entry should be allowed bail while awaiting removal “where appropriate”.

The statement followed reports that some EU nationals arriving in the UK in recent weeks had been taken to prison-like immigration removal centres — including Colnbrook, near Heathrow, and Yarl’s Wood, in Bedfordshire.

The most prominent case involved Marta Lo Martire, a 24-year-old from Puglia in Italy, who was held in Colnbrook overnight on April 17 after arriving to visit her cousin, Giuseppe Pichierri, a microbiologist at London’s Kingston Hospital.

There have been reports of dozens of such detentions, many of young women coming to work as au pairs.

Greece’s embassy in London said it knew of “some scarce cases” involving its nationals while Germany’s embassy said it was aware of a “low single-digit number” of German nationals being temporarily held at airports after arrival but none that had been taken to detention centres.

The EU’s delegation in London said it was “aware” of the issue involving “a small number of citizens from some EU member states”, adding: “The delegation met the Home Office and remains in contact with their team.”

Free movement between the UK and EU ended on December 31 with the expiry of the post-Brexit transition period. Citizens from the 27 EU members, plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, now require a visa to work in the UK if they lack settled status.

The large number of au pairs detained reflects a controversial change to reclassify the live-in domestic helpers as skilled workers for visa purposes.

Pichierri told the Financial Times he had been concerned Lo Martire’s visit might be barred as non-essential under coronavirus regulations. As a result, following consultations with his MP, Paul Scully, he gave her a letter saying the family was considering employing her as an au pair but making clear the visit was only a family one.

Pichierri added that immigration officers took the telephone and other personal belongings of Lo Martire, who speaks no English, before taking her to Colnbrook ahead of removal to Italy on a flight on April 18.

Pichierri said he had offered to put up bail to allow Lo Martire’s release but the offer had been refused.

“We tried to appeal against the immigration decision, to try to clarify whether she was or wasn’t allowed to come in and whether or not she needed to be taken into custody,” Pichierri said.

A Home Office official indicated that the guidance had changed. But the department warned that European citizens had to obey new, post-Brexit rules: “Now freedom of movement has ended, people from across the EU can continue to visit the UK, but those coming to work or study must meet our entry requirements and we urge them to check before travelling.”

The 3million, which represents EU citizens resident in the UK, said the detentions should never have happened.

But it added: “We welcome that the Home Office is belatedly recognising that detention is disproportionate for people who innocently enter the UK and at times do not understand the new rules.”

Citizens from European states that previously had freedom of movement have until June 30 to apply for settled status to remain in the UK.