Surprise as Professor joins Labour MSP in calls for legionnaires’ inquiry


By a Newsnet reporter
An academic has joined the Scottish Labour party in demanding a public inquiry into the legionnaires’ outbreak that hit Edinburgh over two months ago.
Speaking through a Scottish Labour party statement, Professor Hugh Pennington claimed a public inquiry would be the “best way to establish the facts” after around 100 people were treated as a result of the outbreak.

Prof Pennington, who is emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, previously claimed that any decision to hold a public inquiry should wait until all the information had been gathered.

However, in an apparent change of heart, the academic, who is also a high profile supporter of the anti-independence ‘Better Together’ campaign now says an inquiry is needed: “It’s a nasty bug, the infection is preventable and it’s a very expensive thing to treat when it happens.

“Spending more money on the regulatory side, making sure businesses have their cooling towers in order, would be money well spent.” He said.

“This is not a new problem, a public inquiry would be the most effective way to establish the facts and to prevent yet more outbreaks.”

However the Scottish government has pointed out that commenting on a public inquiry would be “inappropriate” given investigations were still ongoing.

A Scottish government spokesman said: “It would be entirely inappropriate to comment on a public inquiry at this time.

“The Health and Safety Executive is continuing its inquiries and any consideration of a public inquiry would have to wait until their investigations are complete.”

Prof Pennington’s intervention was seized on by Labour’s controversial health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie who launched a thinly veiled attack on the Scottish government’s stance on the issue.

Ms Baillie said: “Prof Pennington’s intervention is significant and his authoritative voice should be a reason for the Scottish government to pause and reflect on their decision not to have an independent inquiry into this outbreak.”

However, the academic’s call for a public inquiry, before all investigations have been completed, appears to be at odds with comments he made in June when the outbreak appeared to have come under control.

Speaking in Holyrood Magazine on June 25th, Professor Pennington refused to back calls by Jackie Baillie for a public inquiry, insisting that a decision on whether to hold such an inquiry had to wait until all investigations had completed and all data collated.

Although not ruling a public inquiry out, he said: “Public inquiries are very expensive, that is the problem.  A lot will depend on, really, how much data is going to be published by the incident control team. 

“They will have done very detailed investigations, plus the Health and Safety Executive, plus Edinburgh council as well because they are all involved in this, and obviously the Scottish Government too because they have got themselves quite deeply involved with the Resilience Room too.

“So it is quite a complicated situation and what I would hope to see before we see whether there is a need for a public inquiry, would be all the data that has been accumulated published.”

The decision by Professor Pennington to now call for a public inquiry before investigations have concluded will raise eyebrows.

There will also be surprise at his apparent eagerness to join a Labour MSP who, earlier this year caused outrage when she issued a press release containing bogus information relating to hospital infection rates in Scotland – an area covered by the professor.

In January this year, Jackie Baillie claimed that Scotland was at the top of the European infection league table.  However it later emerged the claims were false and that the figures used were several years out of date and related to a period when Labour, and not the SNP, were in office.

The intervention by the academic is also poorly timed, coming in the middle of a similar outbreak in Stoke on Trent that has already seen 20 reported cases and the deaths of two people.

The probable source of the English infection is thought to be a hot tub at a JTF Warehouse in Fenton.  The source of the outbreak in Edinburgh has yet to be definitively established.