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Two people taken to hospital following parasite outbreak, Commons told

Environment Secretary Steve Barclay (James Manning/PA)
Environment Secretary Steve Barclay (James Manning/PA)

Two people have been taken to hospital following a parasite outbreak in Devon, Environment Secretary Steve Barclay told the Commons.

There are currently 46 confirmed cases of cryptosporidium, a waterborne disease which can cause unpleasant symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Mr Barclay told MPs the number of cases in the Brixham area could continue to rise due to symptoms taking up to 10 days to emerge.

Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall, whose Totnes constituency includes Brixham, said the 46 confirmed cases is an “underestimation” and blamed South West Water (SWW) for people falling ill.

According to the Government, 16,000 households and businesses in Brixham, supplied by SWW, were initially told not to use their tap water for drinking without boiling and cooling it first.

The number of homes which the “boil water” notice applies to has since reduced by 85%, but SWW said this would remain “until we and our public health partners are completely satisfied it is safe to do so”.

During an urgent question on the contamination, Mr Barclay said the situation has caused “considerable concern and disruption to the local community”.

Steve Barclay
Environment Secretary Steve Barclay (Victoria Jones/AP)

He added: “Today, UKHSA have identified at least 46 confirmed cases of cryptosporidium, but given symptoms may take up to 10 days to emerge, obviously that may continue to rise.

“Two people have been hospitalised.”

Mr Barclay continued: “Whilst 16,000 properties were initially subject to the boil notice, 85% of those, so 32,000 of the residents, 14,500 properties, who receive their water from the Alston reservoir have now had that boil notice lifted.

“Not only have all the tests on the Alston reservoir been clear, South West Water say that the posited test of the valve supports their contention that the most likely cause is down stream of that reservoir and if that is the case then those residents initially, the 85%, were never subject to any issues in terms of … water, but the boil notice applied on a precautionary basis.

“But not withstanding that I’m sure there will be ongoing concerns, so daily testing will continue of that water for the foreseeable future.

“On the Hillhead reservoir, this has now been drained, cleaned and re-filled, a flush of the network started this morning, aimed at removing traces of crypto detected in the system.

“We are working with South West Water and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, recognising the ongoing disruption to that remaining 15% of residents, and I know that South West Water will want to comply fully and in a timely fashion with the investigation of the Drinking Water Inspectorate.”

Totnes MP Mr Mangnall branded the situation “totally unacceptable” in the 21st century, adding: “The anger in Brixham is palpable, the frustration is apparent, and the sheer inconvenience that has been put on them by South West Water is absolutely abhorrent.”

He continued: “For 24 hours people were still able to drink the water, South West Water continued to say there was no problem.

“The reason that people are ill and 46 is most certainly an underestimation, is because of that time period in which people were able to go on drinking it.”

Mr Mangnall called for an investigation into SWW’s handling and said the “damaged reputation that has been suffered by businesses and the community of Brixham needs to be addressed”.

Responding, Mr Barclay said: “Issues around drinking water are taken with absolute utmost seriousness within Government, and that is why I can assure him that these issues will be looked at extremely closely.”

Shadow environment minister Emma Hardy said: “Another day, another example of the depths of failure that this Government has taken us.

“I cannot believe that I am about to say this, but after 14 long years of Conservative rule, in 21st century Britain, our water is no longer safe to drink.”

Calling on the Government to “strengthen regulation, so law-breaking bosses face criminal charges”, Ms Hardy added: “They turned a blind eye and left water companies to illegally pump a tidal wave of raw sewage into our rivers, lakes and seas.”

Responding, Mr Barclay said: “Once again, we see shadow ministers pre-empting the investigation, trying to shift it to the issue of raw sewage when the investigations to date, and obviously it is for the Drinking Water Inspectorate to fully investigate this, and the water company, but the initial information shared with me suggests a concern around farm contamination, not raw sewage.”

He added: “We have a fourfold increase in the number of investigators, so the water companies cannot mark their homework.”

The microscopic parasite which caused the waterborne disease likely entered the water network through a damaged air pipe in a field containing cattle, SWW previously said.

Brixham resident Harry Lord, 33, told the PA news agency that he became unwell, along with his wife and two young children, due to the parasite outbreak, which he described as “abysmal”.

Mr Lord, a pharmaceutical line supervisor, said his six-year-old daughter became unwell the day before The Brixham Pirate Festival and he felt ill the following day, with two of the family members later testing positive for cryptosporidium.

He said: “When the whole town came down with it, we started raising a few questions and I jokingly said ‘maybe there’s something in the water’ and then obviously satire turned into reality.

“There’s been complete negligence to the community’s health and it’s almost laughable how bad it’s been.”

David Harris, incident director at SWW, said: “Our teams on the ground continue to work as quickly as we can to resolve the situation in the Hillhead supply area, where we are still advising around 2,500 properties to boil their drinking water before consuming.

Coronavirus – Sat May 30, 2020
Anthony Mangnall, Conservative MP for Totnes (Claire Hayhurst/PA)

“We are urgently investigating the damaged air valve on private land which we believe to be the probable cause, and following the draining and cleaning of Hillhead reservoir we have now refilled the largest of the two tanks within the reservoir and we have isolated the second tank.

“We are working 24 hours a day, and early this morning we commenced flushing of the wider Hillhead network as we work to eliminate any traces of cryptosporidium.

“We will not lift the boil water notice in Hillhead until we and our public health partners are completely satisfied it is safe to do so.”

SWW said an additional £100 compensation will be paid to customers in the areas which continue to be affected, bringing the total to £215.