Staycation or foreign trip - Legionella risks following the coronavirus lockdown

1st September 2020 Personal Injury

For those of us lucky enough to have as booking the prospect of being able to go on a holiday this summer, after a long period at home, is an exciting thought. Sunshine, beaches and relaxation may be the goal, whether you are planning a foreign break or a staycation.

There has been lots of publicity surrounding the measures hoteliers, airlines and tour operators have been taking to make trips as safe as possible, social distancing, table service only, implementing mandatory use of masks in the airport and during the flight etc.

One risk that has not been as highly publicised, however, is the hidden threat of legionella infections once buildings reopen after a long period of closure. The Health and Safety executive in England have published on line guidance stress the risk. The European Study Group for Legionella Infections (ESGLI) has also published advice on how building water systems should be managed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which should help the holiday and travel industries ensure the safety of their customers. In addition, the legionella Control Association (LCA) has produce guidance for its members, who provide water safety services, on what needs to be done to keep water systems safe for use following the lockdown period.

During prolonged periods of closure, when showers haven’t been run, fountains have been turned off, heaters have been left unused water system stagnation can occur, increasing the risk of Legionnaires’ disease.

There is a particular risk with spa pools and hot tubs, and building owners should implement careful recommissioning procedures before welcoming holidaymakers back.
Legionnaire’s disease is relatively uncommon form of pneumonia, but can be very serious and is contracted by breathing in droplets of contaminated water, from things like air conditioning, hot tubs, showers and spas. People with weaker immune systems, the elderly, and those who smoke are more susceptible to the disease. 

Legionella and foreign travel

It is estimated that 20% of all Legionnaires’ disease cases within the EU are travel associated, and over 40% of cases diagnosed in England and Wales were contracted abroad, and because of this a European wide surveillance network was set up to monitor outbreaks, to identify clusters and investigate with an aim to control and prevent infections. This system helped to identify an outbreak of over 20 cases in Majorca in 2017, including sadly a fatality, the victims mainly being holidaymakers from different EU countries including England.

Legionella and the staycation

It was reported that there was a surge in staycation bookings in late June, with 1 booking every 11 seconds, once the Government announced the reopening of accommodation. A mass increase in google searches for accommodation with hot tubs was seen, the ideal way to unwind and relax. Hot tubs and spas are a risk area for legionella, as the bacteria can multiply if the proper cleaning and disinfecting procedures are not followed.

What can you do?

The risks are small, but can be significant, so what can you do? Our advice is to:-

  • Ask your accommodation provide if they have maintained and inspected the facilities, including any hot tub, on site
  • Be alert to the symptoms - which include coughing, a high temperature, difficulty breathing, chest pain, confusion and delirium and diarrhoea. Bear in mind that people who contract Legionnaires’ disease don’t always show all of these symptoms, especially in the early stages of infection, so any of these in isolation could be an indication that you have the disease.

    Seek medical advice promptly.  Certain antibiotics are very effective at treating Legionnaires’ disease, but they are most successful if treatment is started early,
  • Call 111 for advice if you have the symptoms and if you have travelled abroad or to holiday accommodation and think there is a risk you may have been exposed to legionella bacteria tell your treating Doctors to help them in reaching a diagnosis. Diagnosing most forms of the disease can be done using a very simple test.

Your legal rights following legionella

If you have contracted Legionnaires’ disease during a trip away from home you have legal rights and may be able to seek compensation from the accommodation provider, or the tour operator if you have booked a package holiday. JMW have acted for numerous clients who have contracted legionella during holidays, and have successfully brought claims against tour operators and foreign insurers of hotels in the English Courts to ensure our clients received recompense. 

Joanne Brine, Travel Litigation lawyer at JMW comments “Having acted for clients who contracted legionella in recent outbreaks in Spain in 2018 and Turkey in 2019 I have seen the severe illness than can be experienced, and in some cases the long term effects that can be suffered. It is important there should be some publicity and information surrounding the topic to help ensure hoteliers and smaller accommodation providers, such as Air B and B owners, are aware of their responsibilities. With the ever increasing popularity of hot tubs, and the availability and affordability it’s vital that smaller holiday accommodation owners realise the potential dangers to protect visitors”.

Dr Paul McDermott, an independent consultant on microbiological risk management at PJM-HS Consulting Ltd observes “As an expert witness in a number of cases where somebody has contracted Legionnaires’ disease, I have seen the damage that this infection can cause. Some people recover completely when given the correct treatment, whilst others continue to suffer from the effects of Legionnaires’ disease long after their initial infection and sometimes for the rest of their lives. In the most severe cases, I have met with the bereaved families of victims of the disease and have seen the devastating effects of their loss. The factors that can lead to somebody contracting Legionnaires’ disease are well known and the strategies that hoteliers and travel companies need to put in place to avoid risks of infection to their customers are well known. Guidance on the particular measures that need to be applied are freely available, so there is absolutely no excuse for failing to put them in place.”

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Joanne Brine is a Partner located in Manchesterin our Personal Injury department

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