VICTIMS of the deadly legionnaires’ disease crisis in the Capital could be forced to wait another two years to discover the truth about the outbreak.
It has emerged that a detailed report drawn up by NHS Lothian and its health partners has been all but finalised – but it will not be published in full until a criminal investigation into the three deaths caused by the disease has concluded over fears it could prejudice the probe or any potential trial.
And the health board has been told that it could take another two years for the proceedings to be concluded and for their findings to be released in their entirety.
The development has caused frustration among public health experts and left victims, who have been desperate for answers since the legionella crisis struck in May and June last year, exasperated.
Dr Alison McCallum, NHS Lothian’s director of public health and public policy, said: “We have produced a detailed report but are unable to release that. Clearly, it’s a real disappointment for local people.
“It’s very disappointing that it may take two years to get everything sorted out. I am aware a number of individuals are receiving ongoing care. A number will take quite a long time to get over what is a very serious illness.”
The health board is currently in negotiations with other agencies, believed to include the Crown Office, the police and the Health and Safety Executive, as to what can be included in an interim report it hopes to publish by summer. This report could include the number of people affected.
But NHS Lothian sources said the agencies involved in the criminal investigation had made it clear that they were against the report being fully released while their inquiry is ongoing.
A cluster of cooling towers in the Wheatfield Road area of Gorgie were pinpointed as the most likely origin of the legionella bacteria, which resulted in more that 100 confirmed or suspected cases and caused hundreds of others to become unwell. But very little information has been made available to the public since then, and the source of the outbreak is yet to be confirmed.
The Crown Office, Lothian and Borders Police, the Health and Safety Executive and NHS Lothian all declined to give an update on the progress of the investigation into the three deaths when asked by the Evening News this week.
The city’s health leader, Ricky Henderson, said: “I understand that there may be legal and technical reasons for not producing a detailed report. But I do support the need for good quality communication with the local community and people who have been affected. I’m in and around Gorgie a lot and it still comes up in conversation. People still have health problems and there’s a feeling that people are still being affected by it.”
George Walker, a non-executive member of the NHS Lothian board, said that “as much pressure as possible” should be put on authorities to ensure the interim report contained as much information as possible. He said: “We would all agree that transparency is very important.”
A Crown Office spokesman said claims that it had blocked a report were “nonsense”, but added: “We understand that the final report will not be published until the criminal investigations have concluded.”
Expert leads lawyers’ probe into outbreak
ONE of Britain’s leading legionella experts is set to lead his own probe into the cause of last year’s deadly outbreak in the Capital.
Kenneth Charles Ashley (pictured), a former Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector who has been an expert witness in criminal manslaughter trials following legionnaires’ disease cases in other parts of the UK, has been hired by lawyers representing victims of the outbreak to carry out the investigation.
The specialist says he also drew up HSE guidelines, still in force today, on the control of legionella and believes the “disastrous” Edinburgh crisis “simply should never have happened in the first place” had they been followed.
Mr Ashley, who now runs a consultancy firm specialising in microbiological risk, has been commissioned by legal firm Irwin Mitchell which is representing 37 people affected by the outbreak. He said he believed the authorities had been “exceptionally slow” in responding to the crisis and accused them of dragging their feet over the providing information in its aftermath.
He said: “They appear to have been exceptionally slow in dealing with it both during the outbreak and afterwards. They have been even slower in publicising the results of their legionella culture tests from the cooling towers which I would have expected to have been available sometime in mid-June as they promised, had the proper procedures been followed.
“There seems to be a lack of openness and transparency about what is being done, why the process is still continuing and when findings will be made available. The outbreak was months ago and yet the causes of it are no clearer. That compares unfavourably with previous outbreaks in other parts of the UK.”
Mr Ashley’s investigation, which could be finalised this year, will focus on medical records of victims, meteorological data from the Met Office and the distance between those who became ill and cooling towers in Gorgie, which are the most likely origin of the legionnella bacteria.
He also plans to obtain management, maintenance and cleaning records, investigation records and enforcement notices from both companies.
‘Justice delayed is justice denied’
Gordon Erasmuson, who was struck down with legionnaires’ disease last year and believes he will never fully recover, said he was “gobsmacked” to learn he may have to wait two years before the full truth was revealed.
The 60-year-old, of Westfield Street in Gorgie, said: “It sounds like they’re trying to drag it out and hoping it will blow over or go away. I just can’t understand why it is taking so long, it shows the priorities of those investigating. Maybe they have more important things to look out for, like parking fines.
“In my opinion, justice delayed is justice denied. It’s really important to find out what went on. It’s like your life is on hold, but I’ve never heard a thing from the authorities.”