How Britain's filthy rivers left me 24 hours from death by Feargal Sharkey

6 September 2023, 12:10

Feargal Sharkey speaks about his near-death experience
Feargal Sharkey speaks about his near-death experience. Picture: Alamy

By StephenRigley

I still have the words ringing in my ears.

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It was my last day as an outpatient as I was recovering from Weil’s disease, a nasty illness which can cause liver damage, jaundice and kidney failure; doctors assumed I’d caught it while out in England’s rivers pursuing my passion of fly-fishing.

The consultant who’d been treating me outlined just how serious my condition had been: “Feargal, you were about 24 hours away from leaving this mortal coil”.

If I hadn’t received the kind of care I got, when I got it, I probably would not be writing this article.

That’s the impact that kind of disease can have on people.

It also underlines the impact that this government’s policy - and the utter failure of regulation - can have on society.

LBC’s research has brilliantly exposed an endemic problem. Five people per day are falling ill after swimming in Britain’s seas, rivers and lakes. Across England, there are only two tiny stretches of river that are designated as bathing waters - and even they are not actually tested for seven months per year.

It’s just desperate that this problem has developed to the extent where people have to question whether or not they want to do something as innocent as go for a swim in a local river.

Simply put, in England, if you get into a river, you’re on your own. The government wants no responsibility.

There has been a clear failure of political oversight, failure of the regulatory system and decades of underinvestment in the infrastructure.

And it’s infrastructure WE have paid for. We’ve given the water companies the money - let’s not forget, they have paid out a clearly excessive £72 billion in dividends to shareholders since privatization! - and they have failed to spend it on the necessary work.

This is yet another symptom of that colossal industry-wide failure.

Ofwat, the regulator, has confirmed that water companies have a statutory obligation to build and maintain sewage systems capable of effectively dealing with the contents of those sewers. That’s what they signed up to - that’s what their job is.

They have had all the funding they’ve needed to deliver on that objective. Consumers are being failed, prompting the question of why the government is not enforcing the law as it stands.

What the government needs to do is to enforce existing legislation, make the water companies compliant with it and hold them to account.