Lawyers Say Legionnaires’ Disease Prevention Plans Have Failed

Calls For Public Inquiry As 120 Affected And 40 Now Taking Legal Action

16.08.2012

Legal experts representing more than 40 people suffering from Legionnaires Disease following two outbreaks of the infection in the UK in two months say plans outlined six years ago to prevent such major tragedies have failed.

Specialists at law firm Irwin Mitchell are now demanding that Government ministers order a Public Inquiry following the recent outbreaks which have caused five deaths and left more than 120 other members of the public ill in two separate incidents just weeks apart, the first in Edinburgh in May and a second outbreak in Stoke-on-Trent last month.

August marks the 10-year anniversary of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Barrow-in-Furness which affected 180 people and led to seven deaths, with the source found to be a badly maintained air conditioning unit at a leisure centre.

Two public meetings were held in 2006 following this outbreak and a report was published suggesting six general recommendations, including enhanced  advice about training, communication and risk assessments, to prevent a repeat of the Barrow tragedy..

Specialist illness lawyers at Irwin Mitchell are now representing 32 people affected in Edinburgh, including the families of three people who died from the disease, and 10 people in Stoke.

The firm says a Public Inquiry is now needed 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.

Clive Garner, an illness expert at Irwin Mitchell who has represented victims of Legionnaires’ disease from incidents around the world, said: “Ten years ago the Barrow Legionnaires’ disease outbreak was so severe that two public meetings  were held and eventually the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) published a special report with a view to avoiding 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' disease in England and Wales has been at around 350-400 cases per year. This is unacceptably high figure bearing in mind how simple it is to eliminate the risk of infection.

“Now in 2012, we are faced with two outbreaks very close together affecting more than 120 people so far and tragically claiming the lives of five innocent people.

“We urge the government to hold a Public Inquiry to investigate what has gone wrong in these and other recent outbreaks and, just as importantly, 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 British 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.

“Our clients want to know what has caused their suffering and the loss of their loved ones and they want assurances that all reasonable steps are being taken so that others are spared what they have had to go through.”

Irwin Mitchell has already secured the support of MPs and MSPs, including Rob Flello the MP for Stoke-on-Trent South who has written to Health Secretary Andrew Lansbury and Vince Cable who has responsibility for the HSE. The call for a Public Inquiry is also backed by Professor Hugh Pennington, one of the UK’s leading microbiologists.

Prof. Pennington said: “Two big Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks so close together means that something has gone seriously wrong. A Public Inquiry will not only establish the facts but force the implementation of improvements in the preventive measures that are so clearly needed".

Gas engineer Giuseppe Orlando, 57, from Werrington, instructed Irwin Mitchell after being struck down with Legionnaires’ disease in Stoke following a visit to the JTF Warehouse store in the city. He said: “I just can’t believe that after such a terrible outbreak 10 years ago that the authorities aren’t being more cautious.

“Especially as there was a special report recommending how to try and stop future outbreaks. I just want some answers as to why it was allowed to happen again.”

Inspections Fall

The Public Inquiry call comes as 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.

Two weeks ago a hot tub in a JTF discount warehouse unit was named by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) as the ‘probable source’ in the Stoke outbreak. The source of the fatal outbreak in Scotland remains to be identified but investigations have centred on two cooling towers which were the subject of a HSE warning about maintenance procedures.

Garner added: “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 more effective steps need to be taken to tackle the spread of illness. We are particularly concerned that that the number of inspections of cooling towers by the HSE has almost effectively halved last year. 

“Equally worrying, the HSE has admitted that their data about the number of cooling towers in existence is estimated. This lack of reliable data is a real concern.”

Jan Paisley lives in the Gorgie area of Edinburgh.  He has a very physical job as a gardener for Edinburgh City Council and had to pass the distillery on his way to work every day. He is still not back to work.

He was in hospital for 4 weeks and was in intensive care unit for 3 weeks where he has been told that he almost died twice. He has a four-year-old daughter who almost lost her father because of the illness.

Jan said: “I felt like a pin cushion and had to learn to sit, walk and talk again when he came home from hospital.  This has devastated my life and that of my family.  I am looking for answers and guarantees that this will not happen again. 

“I was just shocked to be told by my GP that it could be another two or three months before I can go back to work, if ever, and I’m lucky to still be alive.”