Opposition parties quiz Govt after school closures
Opposition parties on Tuesday quizzed the Government of Gibraltar on its health and safety policies after four schools were shut due to the discovery of legionella bacteria in their water systems.
The schools were shut as a precautionary measure after the bacteria was discovered during checks ahead of reopening the schools following the lockdown.
But while the Government insisted it had conducted the necessary checks in a timely manner, both the GSD and Together Gibraltar expressed deep reservations.
The GSD said the Government could have avoided the closures if “proper checks” had been carried out in the run up to schools reopening.
Meanwhile TG said checking for legionella was the first action point on the NASUWT checklist prior to reopening the schools and questioned whether these requirements had been adhered to.
However the Minister for Education, Gilbert Licudi, hit back and said the Government had “acted swiftly to protect staff and students.”
He said it had done everything required to ensure that the schools are safe.
“We have acted immediately and in keeping with the expert advice and will continue to do so,” Mr Licudi added.
“Nothing comes before the safety and security of our pupils and staff.”
The exchanges came after the Government announced the closure of four schools after the bacteria was found in parts of the schools’ water systems.
The two St Bernard’s Schools and both St Joseph’s schools are closed to Year 2 and Year 6 pupils while the water system is being flushed using a hypochlorination treatment.
The Department of Education arranged for schools to be inspected after weeks of closure during the lockdown period, with part of the inspection process including checking water quality, the Government of Gibraltar said in a statement.
“The Environmental Agency visited the schools and identified for testing the water outlets which they felt could be susceptible to bacterial growth,” the statement read, adding that the tests were carried out over May 18 and 19 and the results received on Monday, June 1.
“The Environmental Agency advised that although the schools’ infrastructures are relatively low risk, the use of the stations from where the samples had been taken from should be restricted as a precaution.”
“As a result, all water outlets which were tested were isolated from use and covered.”
The bacteria was found in one tap in St Bernard’s Upper Primary and a boiler outlet at St Bernard’s Lower Primary, and a shower head and one tap at St Joseph’s Upper Primary.
The Government said it had consulted with the Director of Public Health who advised that the schools which had not yet been treated should be closed, and as an added precaution, St Joseph’s Lower Primary was also closed.
The four schools will remain closed until the entire water systems undergo the hypochlorination treatment and, in addition, the Gibraltar College will also be closed while its water systems are also treated.
Additionally, the Environmental Agency last week said it had been notified of an indication of legionella bacteria in a shower head in part of the old Bayside School which had not been used for a substantial period of time and which is not part of the current Governor’s Meadow School.
There was also an indication of some bacterial growth in water outlets treated in three other schools, the Government said, and as a result of these indications and as a precaution, the entire water system in these four schools was subjected to hypochlorination treatment.
There was no confirmation at that time of legionella bacteria in these three schools, however.
With schools closed just days after reopening as lockdown is eased, officials were yesterday looking to make arrangements for pupils impacted by the closure.
“The Department of Education is considering what arrangements can be made for pupils of these four schools to attend other schools while their schools remain closed,” the Government said in a statement.
“Parents will be advised of any such arrangements through the normal school channels.”
Legionella bacteria grows when there is stagnant, non-flowing water for a prolonged period of time, a spokesman for AquaGib said.
It could lead to a pneumonia-type illness called Legionnaires’ disease, which in some cases could be fatal.
In a statement, AquaGib reassured customers saying the water produced by them is “clean, healthy and drinkable”, adding that it meets water quality standards.
“Our reverse osmosis plants are in constant production,” the company said on its social media.
“This process involves converting sea water into potable water by eliminating all the bacteria, viruses and particles found the sea water.”
“In addition, a very small quantity of chlorine is added to make sure that the water remains clean and healthy as it makes its way to the tap.” “The water within the general network around Gibraltar is constantly moving, as people open taps in their kitchen, have showers, etc.”
“This movement within the network allows for a steady flow of cool water to run through the pipes.”
“The mere fact that there is cool flowing water makes it almost impossible for the Legionella bacteria to grow, which does so when there is stagnant, non-flowing, lukewarm water (20-45°C) for a prolonged period of time.”
For their part, the GSD said there has been significant discussion about the dangers of stagnant water in the international press for weeks and, to the GSD’s knowledge, as far back as late April.
The party said those articles pointed to the need to take public health steps to flush out stagnant water and other precautionary checks before re-commissioning buildings affected by closures or partial closures, adding that it mentioned that several public health or government agencies in a number of countries were issuing recommendations about this.
There have been a number of similar articles in other media sources and more recently, over the last couple of weeks in the British press, the GSD said.
Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi, said: “As such this was avoidable. We urge the Government to now conduct a comprehensive programme of checks of public buildings from this perspective.”
“Those that have been closed or partially closed during the lockdown need to be reviewed to ensure the stagnant water issue is dealt with.”
Shadow Education Minister, Edwin Reyes, added: “Obviously given that the Government only discovered the presence of Legionnaire’s in the four schools now they had to be closed.”
“But if timely checks had been done before schools had opened then it would not have been necessary to close them causing further disruption to families and students.”
Together Gibraltar questioned the Government on how it discovered the bacteria.
The party also asked the Government if its health and safety or environmental health department adhered to the requirements set out by the teachers’ union on its website.
And it called for the Government to share its legionella management plan as well as its yearly risk assessment policy on managing the bacteria.
Together Gibraltar leader, Marlene Hassan Nahon, said: “Similarly to Covid-19, Legionnaire’s Disease, caused by the legionella bacteria leads to a form of pneumonia which is often fatal.”
“The risk element of this disease must therefore be taken very seriously indeed.”
“It is incumbent on our administration to safeguard our citizens, and most of all our children from health risks, especially in spaces managed by government, that can easily be managed with routine maintenance plans.”
“At a time when the world has been fighting a life-threatening pandemic, it is all the more crucial to ensure that public safety standards are met thoroughly and diligently, to ensure we minimise public health threats.”