A new cross party Parliamentary campaign has been launched to tackle the problem of asbestos in Britain’s public buildings which has cost the lives of thousands of teachers and NHS workers. Writing for the Sunday Express, Tory MP David Morris, who has joined the campaign, said that the new focus on public health as a result of the coronavirus crisis should also ensure that the government rethinks its approach to asbestos.
Quoting a recent report by the thinktank Respublica, he said: “Around 80 percent of these schools and 94 percent of these hospitals contain asbestos. Teachers and nurses are subsequently three to five times more likely to develop mesothelioma.
“When the country’s schools reopen, teachers and schoolchildren will wander right back into the line of fire.
“Asbestos kills teaching staff at a rate of around 20 per year, which doesn’t even begin to cover caretakers and administrative staff. NHS workers currently moving at breakneck speed around packed wards up and down the UK are largely unaware that absent the Coronavirus they are risking their health just by being in their place of work.”
He went on: “Our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has rightly pledged to put public health first as we emerge from this phase and begin to meet the ‘five tests’ for recovery.
“But as we do so we must not let other threats to public health and safety simply fade into the background of public concern.
“For decades, the UK has to all intents and purposes ignored the public health impact of asbestos, another silent killer that is the leading cause of the terminal lung disease mesothelioma, and the UKs number one cause of occupational death.
“Asbestos related diseases account for around 10,000 deaths per year, if we include the fatalities of those aged over 75, which are inexplicably omitted from official figures. A statistical practice that would be unimaginable in accounting for Covid-19 deaths.”
Currently, there is not a policy to eradicate asbestos from public buildings although the Department for Health has put in £4.8 billion to upgrade hospitals and the Department Education £7.4 billion to improve schools.
Asbestos is only removed “when it is the safest course of action.”
The departments said that expert advice from the Health and Safety Executive, the regulator, that if asbestos is unlikely to be damaged or disturbed, then it is best managed in place and its condition monitored.
Respublica thinktank director Philip Blond described the government approach as “complacent.”
He said: “They have no way to assess ambient exposure and no response to rising deaths or acknowledgement of them.
“The replies show they are out of date – and reliant on the HSE which is very poor on asbestos.”