Death of boy, two, due to mould in housing authority flat ‘unacceptable tragedy’

The death of a young boy who suffered prolonged exposure to mould is an “unacceptable tragedy”, the Housing Secretary has said.

Awaab Ishak, two, died in December 2020 from a respiratory condition caused by mould in the one-bedroom housing association flat where he lived with parents Faisal Abdullah and Aisha Aminin in Rochdale, Greater Manchester.

Mr Abdullah had previously complained to Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) about the mould, an inquest at Rochdale Coroner’s Court was told.

Giving her findings on Tuesday, senior coroner Joanne Kearsley said: “I’m sure I’m not alone in having thought, ‘How does this happen? How, in the UK in 2020, does a two-year-old child die from exposure to mould in his home?’

Awaab Ishak
Two-year-old Awaab Ishak (Family handout/PA)

“The tragic death of Awaab will and should be a defining moment for the housing sector in terms of increasing knowledge, increasing awareness and a deepening of understanding surrounding the issue of damp and mould.”

Addressing the boy’s parents, Ms Kearsley said: “I hope you know that Awaab will, I am sure, make a difference for other people.”

Secretary of State for Housing Michael Gove spoke about Awaab’s death on Tuesday, as he said it “beggars belief” that the chief executive of Rochdale Boroughwide Housing is still in his job following the death of the two-year-old.

Mr Gove said he has summoned the head of the housing association concerned to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

“This is an unacceptable tragedy,” he said.

Chief executive of RBH Gareth Swarbrick said in a statement: “I can confirm I have received a letter from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities today and will meet to discuss his concerns at the earliest opportunity.”

In a pooled clip for broadcasters, Mr Gove said local authorities and housing associations could not blame a lack of government funding for the child’s death.

“We all know that local authorities are facing challenging times when it comes to finance but, frankly, that is no excuse,” he said.

“When you have got a situation where you have a young child in a house that is unfit for human habitation, it is a basic responsibility of the local authority – but particularly the housing association – to make sure that people are in decent homes.

Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg
Housing Secretary Michael Gove (Aaron Chown/PA)

“All this what-aboutery, all this ‘Oh, if only we had more government money’ – do your job, man.”

In a statement after the hearing, the youngster’s family said: “We cannot tell you how many health professionals we’ve cried in front of and Rochdale Boroughwide Housing 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.”

They said they were left feeling “absolutely worthless” by RBH and alleged they were treated that way because they are not from the UK.

Meanwhile, Mr Swarbrick said Awaab’s death should be a “wake-up call for everyone in housing, social care and health”.

He said: “We have and will continue to learn hard lessons from this.

“We didn’t recognise the level of risk to a little boy’s health from the mould in the family’s home. We allowed a legal disrepair process, widely used in the housing sector, to get in the way of promptly tackling the mould.

“We must make sure this can never happen again.”

Mr Gove said the Government is bringing forward legislation to ensure housing associations responsible for providing social housing are “held to account”, adding that there is “no way” a child in a house with such damp and mould “can be considered to be in a decent home”.

“The standards the housing association should have upheld have been breached and that is why I have asked the guy in charge to come to this department to explain himself.”

In her findings, the coroner described Awaab as “an engaging, lively, endearing two-year-old”.

She said Mr Abdullah reported mould developing in the Tweedale Street flat to RBH in 2017 and was told to paint over it.

In June 2020, Mr Abdullah instructed solicitors and initiated a claim over the recurring issue but policy meant any repairs would not be done until an agreement had been reached, the inquest heard.

A health visitor also contacted RBH to raise the issue in July 2020 and an inspection that month found mould in the kitchen, bathroom and a bedroom cupboard needed treatment.

Ms Kearsley said the mould was due to “normal daily living activities” and a lack of effective ventilation.

She said: “I find as a matter of fact that no action was taken and, from July 2020 until December 2020, Awaab continued to have chronic exposure to harmful mould.”

Awaab was taken to Rochdale Urgent Care Centre on December 19 with shortness of breath and transferred to Royal Oldham Hospital before being discharged, the court heard.

The coroner said the family should have been told to call an ambulance or take him directly to Royal Oldham Hospital if he had further difficulties.

Awaab Ishak’s father Faisal Abdullah, counsel for the family Christian Weaver, solicitor Kelly Darlington and Awaab’s mother Aisha Amin second right, outside Rochdale Coroner’s Court following the conclusion of an inquest which found Awaab died from prolonged exposure to mould
Awaab Ishak’s father Faisal Abdullah, counsel for the family Christian Weaver, solicitor Kelly Darlington and Awaab’s mother Aisha Amin second right, outside Rochdale Coroner’s Court (Eleanor Barlow/PA)

Awaab deteriorated the next day and his parents were advised by the Community Children’s Nursing Team to take him back to the Rochdale Urgent Care Centre.

He went into respiratory arrest and then cardiac arrest while being transferred to Oldham, the inquest heard.

He died after arriving at Oldham.

The coroner said: “Awaab Ishak died as a result of a severe respiratory condition caused due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home environment.

“Action to treat and prevent the mould was not taken. His respiratory condition led to respiratory arrest.

“The medical advice given to his parents led to Awaab receiving suboptimal ventilation of his airway which was unable to prevent his cardiac arrest.”

Ms Kearsley said the issue is “not simply a Rochdale problem”.

She said she will be writing a report for the prevention of future deaths and will write to the minister for housing, and Health Secretary Steve Barclay, to raise issues.