Pembroke’s JCR President has accused the college of risking students’ lives by failing to maintain clean accommodation after a disease outbreak.
He also alleged that the college deceived students by covering up an outbreak of the potentially fatal Legionnaire’s disease.
JCR President Chris Bennetts said the JCR consistently raised concerns about the poor state of the showers and ventilation system in the Macmillan building where the outbreak occurred, but the College had taken no action.
Bennetts said, “The JCR has consistently raised general concerns about the poor state of the showers and ventilation in the building; poor ventilation particularly contributes to the spread of the bacteria.”
He also criticised the decision by college authorities not to inform students of the discovery of Legionnaire’s until Monday morning, despite knowing of the extent of the problem three days earlier.
Bacteria associated with Legionnaire’s disease was found in the water tanks supplying the showers of the Macmillan building last Friday, following routine checks. The college closed off the showers over the weekend before shutting down the whole water supply on Monday while the problem was fixed.
JCR President Chris Bennetts said the college had told students that there was a problem with the water supply on Friday and closed the showers, but only revealed the truth on Monday. “They had been informed on Friday that an unspecified problem had been identified with their water supply; showers were out of use for the weekend with students using neighbouring blocks instead. Tap water was said to be unaffected.”
However, college authorities have defended their actions, saying the decision to withhold the true nature of the problem from students was done so as to prevent panic, and because the bacteria posed a minimal health threat.
They also denied that the presence of Legionnaire’s had any connection with the state of the building.
Bennetts criticised this decision by the college to withhold the true reason for the shower closures and their failure to provide students with information about the disease. “It concerns me that the college did not inform the students what the nature of the problem was until a few days had elapsed – in sealing off the showers they had isolated the problem but students should have been informed about the precise problem in order that they could be vigilant for any symptoms.”
However, Darren Bowyer, the Home Bursar, rejected the accusation of any link between the standard of the Macmillan block and the discovery of Legionnaire’s, saying facilities such as water tanks were vulnerable to the disease. “The standard of the décor and cleanliness of the bathroom units are completely unrelated to the discovery of Legionnaires. Showers where you have a static tank are always a likely area of threat.”
Bowyer also defended the decision to withhold the discovery from students, saying the risk of infection was minimal and that releasing the information would have created unnecessary alarm.
“The risk to a healthy person with a healthy immune system is very small, therefore we thought the risk of causing unneeded panic was greater than any threat to student safety. We thought the best option was to deal the disease first.”
Louise Randall, OUSU Vice President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities, said it was the obligation of colleges to ensure student accommodation was safe. “It is the responsibility of every college to ensure the highest hygiene standards in student accommodation, and we hope that this incident will lead to greater measures being taken to protect student health.”
Randall said that students at Pembroke should be given high standards of accommodation to reflect the fact that they have some of the highest rents of any colleges in the University. “The rent of students at Pembroke is among the highest in Oxford, and the least that any student at any college should be able to expect are clean, functioning facilities which do not put them at risk.”
Legionnaire’s disease is caused by a bacteria that thrives in aquatic and warm environments, infection occurs after inhaling water droplets that originated from a water source contaminated with Legionella.
If treated quickly then mortality rate is less than five per cent, but delay in giving the appropriate antibiotics leads to a higher death rate.