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Mould in home kills toddler, aged 2

Family Handout: Awaab Ishak

A coroner has ruled that two-year-old, Awaab Ishak, died of a respiratory condition caused by mould in his home. This crushing news will undoubtedly provide little comfort to his family who have called on Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) to “stop being racist” and provide fairer treatment for people moving to the UK.

Prior to Awaab’s death, his Father had repeatedly raised concerns with RBH about the mould in the home but his complaints fell on deaf ears.

Coroner Joanne Kearsley has said that RBH weren’t proactive and questioned how it was possible that a child could die as a result of mould exposure in the United Kingdom in 2020.

Mould in the bathroom of Awaab's home
The mould in the bathroom of Awaab’s home

A lack of action

Awaab’s Father, who moved from Sudan to the UK in 2016, first reported mould in his home back in 2017 and was simply told to paint over it by RBH. A year later, Awaab was born prematurely but no concerns were raised by health professionals about his development.

Two years down the line and the mould was still as prevalent as ever. As a result, Awaab’s Father initiated a claim regarding the mould but policy determined that no repairs could take place until an agreement was found.

Just six months later, with an agreement still to be reached, Awaab was rushed to Rochdale Urgent Care Centre after struggling with shortness of breath. Despite being transferred to Royal Oldham Hospital, he was discharged the same day.

Less than 24 hours later, Awaab’s condition had deteriorated and he was taken back to the Urgent Care Centre. It was while being transferred back to the hospital that he went into respiratory and cardiac arrest and died upon arrival.

Housing and Mould: Lives changed forever

After learning of the coroner’s ruling, Awaab’s family a statement explaining how their lives had “changed forever”. They are also adamant that their calls for support and help were ignored because they weren’t from the UK and therefore didn’t know how certain systems worked. They said:

“We cannot tell you how many health professionals we’ve cried in front of and RBH staff we have pleaded to, expressing concern for the conditions ourselves and Awaab have been living in.

“We shouted out as loudly as we could, but despite making all of those efforts, every night we would be coming back to the same problem.”

RBH Chief Executive, Gareth Swarbrick, has enjoyed multiple significant pay rises over the past couple of years, despite his organisation facing up to 600 complaints a month relating to dampness and mould.

Mr Swarbick didn’t attend the coroner court hearing but has said he was “truly devastated” about Awaab’s death and the things RBH got wrong. He added:

“We know that nothing we can say will bring Awaab back or be of any consolation to his family. We didn’t recognise the level of risk to a little boy’s health from the mould in the family’s home and we allowed a legal disrepair process, widely used in the housing sector, to get in the way of promptly tackling the mould.

Mr Swarbrick has also responded to the family’s claims that his organisation were racist against refugees and asylum seekers, saying that they “support the diverse communities of Rochdale” and are “proud of the work we do with all our tenants.”

He did, however, accept that Awaab’s death should be a “wake-up call” and vowed that he would continue to “learn hard lessons.”

Being held to account

Despite Mr Swabrick’s statement, RBH are set to face further scrutiny from Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, and Rochdale Borough Council.

Michael Gove has requested that Mr Swarbrick visits his department to explain to him how this tragedy has been allowed to happen. The Housing Secretary has also gone on record to say that it is “beggars belief” how Mr Swarbrick is still in his job.

Meanwhile, Rochdale Borough Council’s cabinet member for housing, Danny Meredith has slammed the “appalling state” of Awaab’s home and the lack of support despite their pleas.

Final thought

The Rochdale Boroughwide Housing state on their website that they provide affordable housing across the Rochdale area. Perhaps they should focus on making sure these houses are actually safe and fit for purpose before bragging about affordability. And while Michael Gove may be able to take the moral high ground on this particular case, it’s going to be up to him as Housing Secretary to ensure people of all races, religions and backgrounds are provided with appropriate housing across the country.

There is little doubt that housing inequalities are rife across the UK – with subpar housing stock being disproportionately inhabited by ethnic minorities and being concentrated in the most deprived areas. Tackling this issue must form a critical part of any serious levelling up agenda in order to address the inequalities that are baked into public service provision in the UK. This will be a key focus of the 2023 work of Curia’s Levelling Up Commission, which will seek to investigate how public service provision can drive down inequalities and avoid reinforcing them.

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