Birling Gap toxic haze measures are a victory for accountants over common sense

Stephen Lloyd MP for Eastbourne
Stephen Lloyd MP for Eastbourne

A good result this week. I finally got the right outcome from the government, but it’s not over yet: It all started back in August 2017, when 136 people presented themselves to DGH Accident and Emergency, complaining of streaming eyes and itchy throats.

They’d encountered what appeared to be a noxious haze at Birling Gap and then, later, along the coast to Eastbourne and Pevensey Bay. Fortuitously no-one was badly harmed but it was potentially a very serious matter.

We never did discover where it had come from (although a ship of some kind was eventually thought most likely), so no agency or culprit was ever held responsible. One of the main reasons for this, I soon discovered, was the emergency services were not equipped to assess its chemical make-up. Best guesses at the time were a combination of ozone and something else, a mystery chemical that reacted with sea-water, perhaps from a ship illegally flushing out its tanks. At the time of the official report I emphasised I’d be pressing the government to make resources available to procure equipment which could securely hold and assess future leaks. Only then would we be properly prepared.

It was very hard work. Incredibly even after the report was published, Ministers still refused to fund the equipment or even accept it was necessary. To my mind this stance was ridiculous as the facts on the ground were obvious, so I wouldn’t give up. And I can be pretty unreasonable on behalf of Eastbourne and Willingdon as you well know! Then this week, at last, the good news that as well as improving the action protocol for such future incidents, they are going to fund something called a photo ionisation detector, to collect and identify chemical compounds, were a similar event to happen again. I am pleased. But not delighted. Why? Because in a victory for accountants over common sense, one device is being funded for the whole of Sussex. They only cost about £4,000 each. That means to reach any coastal location in equal time it needs to be stored ‘centrally’. Let’s follow the logic through: If we take that to mean Haywards Heath the time to reach Birling Gap for you and I is an hour; call it 40 minutes under blue light. This doesn’t even include a coastal situation being assessed as needing the kit! Let’s say this adds another half an hour on the timeline, and if it’s Hastings or Shoreham even longer. Now we know the chemical leak came from the sea but also dissipated quickly, perhaps within less than an hour. So it seems daft to me that having decided (at last) the public’s health demands such an investment, that adequate funding has not been provided for enough devices to guarantee coastal coverage. Sigh. As is often the case in Westminster, here we go again...

Consequently, I’ve immediately contacted the relevant Minister requesting they fund the job properly to secure additional equipment. This would then ensure Eastbourne (and other coastal areas) are better prepared should, heaven forbid, a seriously toxic cloud ever reach our shores again. I won’t give up until they agree. Public safety demands it.

Bowel Cancer Screening: I spoke in Parliament this week on reducing the age of bowel cancer screening from 60 to 50 years old. Although it was good news to hear last summer from Health Minister, Steve Brine MP, that his department had agreed, in principle, to Eastbourne resident Lauren Backler’s campaign the NHS begin screening for bowel cancer from the age of 50, little has been heard since, which is frustrating. I’d already challenged the Minister twice in Parliament over the issue, as well as sponsored an Early Day Motion seeking the age reduction, receiving considerable cross-party support. However, I was disappointed that since announcing their decision the Health Department has still not revealed plans to expand capacity, ensuring a successful national roll-out of the lower bowel cancer screening age. And this week as the Prime Minister announced the government’s 10-year forward plan for the NHS, it also failed to reveal any further detail on the issue. Consequently, during the debate I challenged the Health Minister on its omission, and asked for reassurances it was on track. Despite ‘expressions of support’ he failed to give me precise details on the proposed roll-out, nor a firm commitment on the resource and capacity requirements. I’m sure it’s in hand but I WILL keep up the pressure in Parliament for a confirmed start date.

In politics, as we all know, things can drift if they’re not accorded a due degree of focus and this important, life-saving issue, is not something I’ll let up on. Lauren, her dear mum whose tragic early death from bowel cancer triggered the whole campaign, and the hundreds of thousands of people across Eastbourne and the UK who are backing Lauren’s magnificent initiative, deserve nothing less.

That’s it folks. Have a great weekend and I hope to see you a round town.