Awaab Ishak was two-years-old when he died because of exposure to mould in his home. How does that happen in modern Britain?
Awaab Ishak was a toddler with a big smile. His parents said he was âfull of laughterâ and liked to joke around.Â
He lived with them in a one-bedroom flat in Rochdale in Greater Manchester. Aawabâs parents had come to live in the UK from Sudan in 2016 and he was born a couple of years after.Â
Thereâs a picture of him on his second birthday with a cake thatâs almost bigger than him. Just days after it was taken, in December 2020, Awaab was rushed to hospital with breathing problems.
He went into cardiac arrest, and died.
The coroner at his inquest heard that mould had been a problem in the flat where he lived. Awaabâs father had complained to the buildingâs owners several times, but had been told by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing just to paint over it.Â
But after Awaab was born, the mould became more severe and his parents got increasingly worried. He was always ill with a runny nose, a cough or repeated respiratory tract infections. His father kept complaining and the family asked to be rehoused.
A health visitor even came to inspect the mould, but nothing was done despite them raising concerns.
Photographs of the property show a thick, black, tar-like layer covering the ceilings and the wallsâŠ Every room was riddled with it, including where Awaab slept.
Nothing was done to deal with it before Awaab died.
His family wrote a statement after his death which their lawyer read outside the court in the pouring rainâŠ
âThe past two years had been gruelling when Awaab died, our lives changed forever.âAwaabâs family statement
So letâs go back to that question asked by the coroner in Awaabâs case, how could this happen in twenty-first century Britain?
Awaab Ishakâs family did all they could to try and help their son.Â
They repeatedly outlined the issues with the flat: the ventilation was so poor that damp and mould were inevitable. There was nothing more that they could have done.Â
During his short life, Awaab would have spent every day breathing in the mouldâs deadly spores. A post-mortem found fungus in his blood and lungs.
In his parentsâ statement after the coronerâs verdict, read by their lawyer, they said their son died because of racism:Â
âWe were treated this way because we are not from the country and less aware of how the systems in the UK work.âAwaabâs family statement
Awaab lived in a building managed by Rochdaleâs biggest social housing provider: Rochdale Boroughwide Housing.Â
They did come and inspect the flat a few months before Awaab died, but they didnât do any repairs.
Instead, the mould was put down to the familyâs lifestyle. Workers who came to inspect the property saw a bucket in the bathroom along with the wet floors and saturated walls. They assumed the family were using the bucket to carry out âritual bathingâ. But the inquestâs findings were clear: there was no evidence at all for that claim.Â
The dampness was caused by the buildingâs poor ventilation.
In their statement, the family were clearâŠ
âStop discriminating, stop being racist, stop providing unfair treatment to people coming from abroad who are refugees or asylum seekers [and] stop housing people in homes you know are unfit for human habitation.âAwaabâs family statement
Richard Blakely, the official in charge of upholding housing standards, agreed:
âI think thereâs been a 40-year culture in the social housing sectorÂ amongst landlords that has sometimes seen â and indeed amongst private landlords â that have sometimes seen reports of downtown damper malt dismissed too lightly kind of blamed on the residentâs lifestyle choices itâs unfair itâs patronising itâs stigmatising and it can impede proper action.âRichard Blakely
In a statement, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing admitted they made mistakes.
âWe did make assumptions about lifestyle and we accept that we got that wrong. We will be implementing further training across the whole organisation. We abhor racism in any shape or form and we know that we have a responsibility to all our communities.âRochdale Boroughwide Housing
In her report, the coroner said Awaabâs death should be a defining issue for the housing sector. But will anything change?
Michael Gove, who is the cabinet minister responsible for housing, said he was outraged when he heard about Awaabâs deathâŠ
âIt seems to me inconceivable that the Chief Executive of a Housing Association (Who earns north of ÂŁ150,000,) who is responsible for decent homes in RochdaleâŠ The fact that they hid behind procedureâŠ It beggarâs belief that this guy is still in the post.â Â ÂMichael Gove
The man heâs referring to is Gareth Swarbrick. He was paid ÂŁ170,000 in the year that Awaab died and after Awaabâs inquest he was under huge pressure to step down, but tried to resist.
âI want to start by saying how sorry I am to Awaabâs family for their loss â no apology will ever be enough. Having spoken to the board, I can confirm that I will not be resigning.âGareth Swarbrick
It was only when Michael Gove publicly said he should resign that the housing association decided to remove him from his post.
But one man losing his job isnât going to fix the problem.
The National Housing Federation estimates that one in five children are currently living in overcrowded, unaffordable or unsuitable homes.Â
Awaab and his parents lived in a property owned by a housing association, which isnât run for profit.Â
Many more families live in homes owned by private landlords who are making money and can evict them whenever they want. Awaabâs family were able to complain without the fear of being kicked out, but others will think twice before raising concerns. Attempts to end whatâs known as no fault evictions have so far failed.
Itâs hoped that Awaabâs shocking death will prompt much needed reform.
This episode was written and by Rebecca Moore.