Clive Garner: Lessons must be learned from city legionnaires’ crisis

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In May this year the legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Edinburgh began and has since affected more than 100 people, with three innocent victims tragically losing their lives.

Three months on and there is anger and frustration from the public about the distinct lack of information published on how the investigations are progressing, or any potential timescales given on when they might receive any news.

At Irwin Mitchell we are representing more than 30 people who 
have been affected or who have lost family members. Our clients want answers and we feel that now is the time for the Scottish Government to act.

Ten years ago a legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Barrow-in-Furness affected 180 people, including seven deaths, with the source found to be a badly maintained air conditioning unit at a leisure centre.

It was so severe that two public meetings were held and eventually in 2006 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published a special report with a view to stopping this kind of tragedy from happening again.

To put it simply, these plans to prevent further outbreaks of the illness have failed and since 2005 the number of reported cases of legionnaires’ nationwide has been around 400, an unacceptably high figure bearing in mind how simple it is to eliminate the risk of infection.

We urge the Scottish Government to hold a public inquiry to investigate what has gone wrong in Edinburgh and to determine what lessons can be learned to reduce the risk of similar outbreaks of this deadly disease occurring in the future.

The government has an obligation under human rights law to carry out a proper investigation here.

While it is important that the terms of reference of the public inquiry are specific and refer to preventing future tragedies, the remit of the inquiry needs to remain broad enough so that it can adequately deal with issues that may be uncovered as the evidence unfolds.

The public inquiry would need to consider matters including:

• The causes of recent outbreaks and how they were managed

• How the outbreaks were investigated

• Any potential regulatory problems which exist, such as the lack of co-ordination between the various regulatory bodies

• The training for environmental health officers and the HSE inspectors and both the frequency and quality of their inspections

• What has changed since the Barrow incident and if any new lessons can be learned from the recent outbreaks.

Irwin Mitchell has already secured the support of MPs and MSPs for more information to be released in relation to the ongoing investigations, and the call for a public inquiry is also backed by Professor Hugh 
Pennington, one of the UK’s leading microbiologists.

The source of this fatal outbreak remains to be identified but investigations have centred on cooling towers which were the subject of an 
HSE warning about maintenance 
procedures.

One of the concerns is that figures show the number of inspections by the HSE for legionella bacteria in cooling towers in the UK has fallen, from 237 in 2010 to 134 last year despite them being a well-known potential source of infection.

There are well documented steps that can be taken to prevent infection with legionella bacteria but the high number of infections each year in the UK is very worrying and it is clear that more effective steps need to be taken to tackle the spread of illness, which makes the fall in the number of inspections particularly alarming.

Given the current lack of information available regarding the Edinburgh outbreak we believe a public inquiry is needed to fully understand what has happened, how it happened and how another outbreak can be avoided.

• Clive Garner is an illness expert at Irwin Mitchell who has represented victims of legionnaires’ disease from incidents around the world

• Gordon Erasmuson has been demanding answers since he was taken back to hospital more than a month after he first became ill.

The 59-year-old retired carpenter from Westfield Street in Gorgie said legionnaires’ victims had been met by “a wall of silence”.

Speaking to the News last month when the outbreak was declared over, he said: “I think they are trying to cover up their own incompetence. They are trying to shield themselves from losses from people suing.

“What would convince me would be if they got an independent agency to come and inspect the towers – or got rid of the towers and put brand new ones in.

“And they need to be testing the towers weekly as it only takes a few days for this bug to get into the atmosphere.”