Labour vows to put sewage-dumping water companies in special measures as waterborne diseases soar

Waterborne diseases have “put thousands of people in hospital” since 2010, Labour said, as it vowed to put water companies dumping sewage into UK rivers and seas under special measures.

Cases of waterborne diseases such as dysentery have soared by nearly 60 per cent in 14 years, according to the party’s analysis of NHS hospital admissions data.

The number of people admitted to hospital with diseases transmitted via waterborne infection rose from 2,085 in 2010/11 to 3,286 in 2022/23, according to Labour.

Cases of waterborne diseases such as dysentery have soared since 2010 (Reuters)
Cases of waterborne diseases such as dysentery have soared since 2010 (Reuters)

It said the statistics showed that in the last year alone more than 120 people were diagnosed with leptospirosis – a rare infection also known as Weil’s disease that can cause fever and vomiting – double the number diagnosed with the same condition in 2010.

One of the ways of contracting the disease is by getting freshwater containing infected animal urine into your mouth, eyes or a cut during activities such as kayaking and outdoor swimming, according to the NHS.

It came as figures this week revealed storm overflows spilled sewage into rivers and seas for more than 3.6 million hours in 2023, more than double the previous year.

Data published by the Environment Agency showed sewage spills at their highest-ever levels, with 464,056 spills in 2023, up 54 per cent from 301,091 in 2022. And a marine biologist revealed this week that raw sewage being dumped in the English Channel has left every marine species in the water “full of cocaine, amphetamines and MDMA”.

Professor Alex Ford told The Independent the drugs are in such small traces that they wouldn’t be able to kill an aquatic creature by overdose but the drugs, especially cocaine, amphetamines and MDMA, could alter their behaviour.

There is growing anger over the polluted state of England’s rivers and coasts, with no single stretch of river classed as being in a good overall condition, and hundreds of pollution risk alerts issued for popular beaches around the country last year.

Fury with the water industry intensified on Thursday when Thames Water revealed its funding crisis had deepened after shareholders refused to give the troubled utility extra cash.

It is understood investors pulled the funding plan that was agreed last summer after the regulator Ofwat refused to bow to the debt-laden water giant’s demands for a 40 per cent bill hike for customers and an easing of capital spending requirements, as well as leniency on penalties for failing to meet targets.

Labour’s Steve Reed said the rise in waterborne diseases was ‘sickening’ (PA Archive)
Labour’s Steve Reed said the rise in waterborne diseases was ‘sickening’ (PA Archive)

Labour shadow environment secretary Steve Reed said: “It is sickening that this Conservative government has turned a blind eye to illegal sewage dumping that has put thousands of people in hospital.

“To make matters worse, consumers face higher water bills while water bosses pocket millions in bonuses.

“Labour will put the water companies under special measures to clean up water. We will strengthen regulation so law-breaking water bosses face criminal charges and give the regulator new powers to block the payment of any bonuses until water bosses have cleaned up their filth.

“With Labour, the polluter – not the public – will pay.”

Sir Keir Starmer’s party has also pledged to end self-monitoring and force all companies to monitor every single water outlet under independent supervision, as well as introducing tough fines for illegal sewage discharges.

Richard Walker, former chairman of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Labour’s plan will take the tough action required to get our vital utilities back to serving the public interest.

“Everyone deserves to enjoy our beautiful coastline and rivers without the fear of getting sick because some fat cat has been shovelling out dividends rather than investing in vital improvements.”

And Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Pollution and nature loss are a public health disaster. Billions could be saved every year for the NHS by cleaning up filthy rivers, curbing air pollution, and bringing nature back to life. All parties should make big polluters pay and ensure water companies invest in nature recovery for the sake of public health.”

Storm overflows dump untreated sewage into rivers and seas, usually during heavy rainfall, to stop sewers backing up.

Water firms have said they want to triple investment to £10bn over the period 2025-2030 to tackle the problem, which would be paid for through consumer bills.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “Labour’s botched-together announcement today is entirely made up of measures this government is already delivering under our Plan For Water.

“It shows that, unlike the Conservatives, Keir Starmer and his party have no plan for cutting sewage spills and holding water companies to account. They would take us back to square one.”

The government has launched a consultation to ban water bosses’ bonuses when criminal breaches have occurred, quadrupled company inspections next year, fast-tracked £180m of investment to cut spills, and launched a whistleblowing portal for water company workers to report breaches.