Scammers target victims of Devon water crisis, as South West Water boosts payouts after backlash

19 May 2024, 14:53 | Updated: 19 May 2024, 15:14

Scammers have targeted people affected by the water crisis
Scammers have targeted people affected by the water crisis. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Fraudsters have targeted people affected by the Devon cryptosporidium crisis, with the company increasing compensation after a backlash.

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Hundreds of people are thought to have fallen ill from the parasite, and around 16,000 households and businesses in the area were told not to use their tap water without boiling and cooling it first.

Most have been told they can now drink the water again by South West Water (SWW) the company responsible, whose CEO has apologised. The cryptosporidium is likely to have got into the local water supply through a faulty valve.

Customers are in line for a £215 compensation payout from the water company. SWW bosses increased the payouts from £115, after a backlash. The figure started even lower, at £15.

But scammers have been targeting some locals, SWW said on Sunday. The company said that customers should ignore these calls, as all payouts will be made automatically.

Read more: Water boss 'truly sorry' for parasites in Devon supply, as a grandmother is rushed to hospital among 'hundreds ill'

Read more: Parasite outbreak 'to last ten more days' - as school closes and shoppers panic buy bottled water

A drone view of people collecting bottled water at Freshwater car park in Brixham.
A drone view of people collecting bottled water at Freshwater car park in Brixham. Picture: Alamy

"All household customers who have been issued with the boil water notice will receive their compensation by way of an automatic payment.

"Where we hold direct debit details this will be made as an immediate payment, where we do not this will be added as a credit to the next available bill."

West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger criticised the original payout figure as "tokenism".

People collecting bottled water
People collecting bottled water. Picture: Alamy

Some 46 cases of cryptosporidiosis, the disease caused by cryptosporidium, which can cause unpleasant symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting, have been confirmed in the town. Hundreds more people have reported similar symptoms and authorities expect cases to rise.

Some 14,500 households and businesses were told on Saturday afternoon that they could turn their water back on again, although around 2,500 properties were advised to keep boiling.

SWW boss Susan Davy apologised on Sunday, saying in a video posted to Twitter: "I want to apologise, you expect a clean, safe and fresh supply of drinking water. It's not a lot to ask for.

"But for those in the Brixham area this week, we haven't been able to deliver that. for that. I'm truly sorry. I know how distressing this has been for the community, and particularly for those who have fallen ill.

"Incidents like these are thankfully very rare, but they shouldn't have happened. Our engineers and specialists on the ground are working around the clock to quickly identify and fix the issue.

"We are making good progress. Bottled water has been delivered to customers, businesses, schools, care homes, and conversation payments for you have increased, but I know that's just reacting to the problem, not resolving it.

"We will not stop working until normal drinking water has been restored to everyone."

South West Water handing out emergency rations of bottled water to anyone affected by the Cryptosporidium outbreak
South West Water handing out emergency rations of bottled water to anyone affected by the Cryptosporidium outbreak. Picture: Alamy

Local MP Anthony Mangnall said on Saturday: "The predominant failure is the fact that earlier in the week, South West Water was asked whether or not this was to do with their network and they categorically ruled it out, only for them to change their position 24 hours later, which I think is contemptible and just generally incompetent - and it's put a lot of people's health at risk."

He accused SWW of failing to "safeguard public health" and would "be absolutely on the line" to compensate local businesses which have lost money because of the outbreak.

The MP said he would be raising the matter in the House of Commons and with the area's local authorities but was "absolutely determined not to jump the gun on this". He added: "I want to make sure that before we get to the sentence, we know the verdict - that to me is really important."

A drone view of people collecting bottled water at Freshwater car park in Brixham.
A drone view of people collecting bottled water at Freshwater car park in Brixham. Picture: Alamy

Speaking earlier on Saturday to LBC News' Chris Golds, he said: "This is such a serious matter that... I think heads are going to roll over this, but it's more important to get the system back up and running, make sure people have confidence in the network rather than pointing fingers.

"We do the investigation afterwards and we will make sure that those who are responsible are held to account.

"We have a situation report every morning with all the health authorities and organisations and the Secretary of State for Health, Victoria Atkins, has been very active on this as well. We have scaled everything up. We're obviously making sure the resources are there and the local hospitals and facilities, if it were needed.

"Thankfully, it does not seem as though people are going into hospital but it is making sure that people have got access to all the medical resources they need and that has all been scaled up."

Health and Social Care Secretary Victoria Atkins
Health and Social Care Secretary Victoria Atkins. Picture: Alamy

Dr Bayad Nozad, consultant in health protection at UKHSA, said the Government agency was aware of further reports of illness above their confirmed numbers.

He said: "Please do not contact medical services to report cases unless you need urgent clinical care. If your symptoms last longer than seven days, or if you experience more severe symptoms such as blood in your poo, please contact your doctor who may recommend taking a sample for testing.

Caller Louise on the contaminated water warning in Devon

"Those with symptoms should stay off nursery, school and work for 48hrs since the last episode of illness and anyone with diarrhoea should not go swimming for 14 days after the last episode of illness."

Typical symptoms can include watery diarrhoea, stomach pains, dehydration, weight loss and fever, and usually last for about two weeks but can be longer, Dr Nozad said.

News of further confirmed cases comes after a health expert said residents should "expect to see further cases for at least ten days to two weeks".

SWW issued a "boil water notice" for Alston and the Hillhead area of Brixham after water tests showed "small traces" of the parasite, which causes sickness and diarrhoea.

"It's like something out of 28 Days Later", James O'Brien tells Devon resident Chris

SWW chief customer officer Laura Flowerdew said on Thursday a damaged air pipe in a field containing cattle was a potential source.

Residents are being urged to boil water and let it cool before drinking it, preparing or cooking food or cleaning their teeth, though the company said water can continue to be used as normal for washing, bathing and flushing the toilet.

The disease can be picked up directly from the faeces of another person or animal, from swimming in or drinking contaminated water, or even by eating contaminated food such as unwashed vegetables.

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