Inquest examining girl’s asthma attack death ‘not about blame culture’

A coroner has stressed an upcoming inquest into the death of a young girl who died of a fatal asthma attack will not be a “blame culture” inquiry, as it sets out to explore the Government’s role in addressing issues surrounding air pollution.

Ella Kissi-Debrah died in February 2013 following three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for breathing problems.

An inquest in 2014, which focused on the nine-year-old’s medical care and ruled she died of acute respiratory failure as a result of a severe asthma attack, was quashed by High Court judges in light of new evidence regarding air pollution levels.

A 2018 report by Professor Stephen Holgate found air pollution levels at the Catford monitoring station one mile from Ella’s home “consistently” exceeded lawful EU limits over the three years prior to her death.

He is due to give evidence as an expert witness at an upcoming inquest which has been listed under Article 2, the right to life, of the Human Rights Act, which scrutinises the role of public bodies in a person’s death.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah (Family/PA)
Rosamund Kissi-Debrah (Family/PA)

At a partially remote review hearing at Southwark Coroner’s Court on Friday, assistant coroner Philip Barlow said there were no disagreements from the interested parties, which include governmental departments, to Article 2 being engaged.

The full inquest, which is currently scheduled to begin on November 30 for 10 days, will consider whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s death and how levels were monitored at the time.

Other issues to be addressed at the inquest include the steps taken to reduce air pollution, and the information provided to the public about the levels, its dangers and ways to reduce exposure.

Interested parties listed at the inquest include Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, Transport for London, the Department of Health, the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), the Mayor of London’s office and Lewisham Council.

Alan Payne, from the Government’s legal department, said a report is being prepared by an expert to be presented at inquest with regards to whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s death, but this has been delayed due to Covid-19.

“Due to the pandemic there have been difficulties in identifying and engaging with potential experts,” he told the hearing by video link, adding an expert has been identified “relatively recently”.

Car exhaust emissions (Lewis Whyld/PA)
Car exhaust emissions (Lewis Whyld/PA)

Mr Barlow said he was unsatisfied by this late request for evidence given that the previous review hearing took place in December last year.

He said: “If there is to be more evidence on that point (whether air pollution caused or contributed to Ella’s death) then it needs to be provided very quickly.

“If it isn’t, then it seems to me I would need to consider whether it’s fair to allow that evidence to be produced at inquest.”

Mr Barlow stressed that the inquest was not about “blame culture”, stating: “This is not a public inquiry, it’s a limited investigation.

“An investigation of this kind has very, very important public interest points and these need to be explored.”

Ella lived 25 metres from the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London, one of the capital’s busiest roads.

She may become the first person in the UK for whom air pollution is listed as the cause of death.

The London skyline viewed through the haze from Alexandra Palace, north London (Victoria Jones/PA)
The London skyline viewed through the haze from Alexandra Palace, north London (Victoria Jones/PA)

Speaking previously about the inquest, Ms Kissi-Debrah, who attended Friday’s hearing virtually, said: “All I can say is we know a lot more now about air pollution.

“We hope it will save future lives.

“It’s not going to bring my daughter back, but I hope it will save future lives.”