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A repeat of the deaths of two children at a Corfu hotel when on a Thomas Cook holiday is possible but tour operators cannot be to blame, an inquest was told this week.
Andy Cooper, Cook’s former director of government and external affairs and director-general of the Federation of Tour Operators, gave evidence on Friday last week.
A day earlier reps and a health a safety executive from Cook had refused to answer questions about the case having taken legal advice not to incriminate themselves.
Cooper sought to defend the operator’s role after the parents of Christi and Bobby Shepherd, aged six and seven respectively, blamed it for the double tragedy in 2006.
He told David Hinchliff, the coroner at Wakefield Coronor’s Court, that no tour operator would be expected reasonably to carry out health and safety audits on every room.
“The people carrying out these checks, would just be carrying out a basic audit,” he said.
“I don’t believe the duty of care of the tour operator is that they should be carrying out a full safety check.”
The inquest had previously been told that the Louis Corcyra Beach hotel had assured Thomas Cook there were no gas boilers in the hotel.
The poorly maintained gas boiler was in an out-house attached to the bungalow the Shepherds had been moved to. Cooper said a rep would have “no reason to expect there was a gas water heater”.
He added: “The reality is that it could happen again but not just because a customer has booked through a tour operator.
“What I would say is there is nothing to prevent accidents from happening, but to say this particular outcome will happen again, I’m not so sure.”
Hinchliff said: “Listening to you I feel depressed that nothing has changed.”
Cooper replied: “There has been significant change since this incident. From 2007 on there were new regulations on gas heaters as a direct response to this experience.”
Leslie Thomas QC, the Shepherd’s family barrister, pressed Cooper on the role of Thomas Cook rep Richard Carson, one of two who originally faced criminal trials in Greece before charges were dropped.
Cooper conceded that with the benefit of hindsight Carson should have inspected the boiler cupboard. But he rejected Thomas’s assertion that “hindsight should never be an excuse for something that is reasonable at that time”.
Earlier the court heard from Peter Welsh, the head of health and safety for Thomas Cook.
Welsh told the court that he understood Cook staff had been told there were no gas-powered heaters at the hotel complex by the hotelier.
While Cook had a health and safety assessment audit carried out after taking on a new hotel, and every month on hotel’s already in the portfolio, the court heard that these checks were more a “tick box exercise” rather than a thorough check.
Hinchliff asked Welsh whether staff’s training levels were high enough to carry out an effective check.
Welsh said: “I think the level of training should be based on what you are trying to do.
“Having someone identify a gas heater and have them check it for safety are two completely different things.”
Leslie Thomas said Cook had failed to meet their own safety standards when they allocated the room to the Shepherd family.
He said it was factually correct the firm did no annual checks and did not receive any documents to prove checks had been carried out.
Nicholas Purnell QC, representing Cook, asked Welsh about the travel firm’s current policy on gas heaters.
Welsh said: “We wouldn’t use them. Full stop. Internal gas water heaters aren’t acceptable in all circumstances.”
On Thursday last week Thomas Cook reps Nicola Jordison (nee Gibson), her husband and fellow rep David Jordison and Thomas Cook health and safety manager Clare Kenny all refused to answer questions.
Nicola Jordison was the other rep who had faced criminal charges in Greece before charges were dropped.
An hour-long statement given to the Greek courts by Jordison was read out, prompting an angry outburst from the dead children’s mother Sharon Wood.
But Jordison even refused to acknowledge the document was her statement or to offer an apology to the parents when Thomas asked if she’d like to say sorry.
Thomas said: “You had five clear opportunities before this family’s children went to that resort to bring to Thomas Cook’s attention that there was gas there, that their forms were wrong and had you brought to Thomas Cook’s attention something could have been done. Do you accept that?”
Mrs Jordison replied: “I decline to answer.”
He said: “My clients would like me to put it to you this is an inquest into the deaths of two young children. This is an opportunity to assist. Would you like to take that opportunity?”
She said: “I decline to answer.”
Jordison’s husband, David, who was also working at the resort at the time, said in a statement read in court: “I was employed by Thomas Cook as a resort supervisor in Corfu.” The statement added: “I deny emphatically that I have had any involvement in any criminal offence.
“I would like to say how genuinely sorry I feel and my thoughts and condolences are with [the Shepherd family] for the loss they have suffered.”
Thomas asked him: “Were you in a relationship [with Nicola Jordison, née Gibson] at the time?” He replied: “I decline to answer.”
Thomas added: “I only ask because you would have been her supervisor, and if she was acting inaccurately it would have been your job to to spot that.
“Was your mind on the job or was your mind on other matters?” Jordison, who no longer works for Thomas Cook, said: “I decline to answer.”
Thomas asked: “How much initiative and common sense do you train your staff to have? What do you tell them to do in your training?”
He replied: “I decline to answer.”
Thomas said: “You knew there was gas there, because you had been there for a whole season, didn’t you?”
Mr Jordison again declined to answer.
A statement read on Kenny’s behalf in court stated: “In my role as group manager for health and safety I do not have responsibility for obtaining health and safety for each hotel.
“On the 26th October I was in the UK and I received a report saying two children had died.
“These are the first deaths of any Thomas Cook customers of carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Thomas asked: “Does a season run from April through to October?”
She replied: “Yes.”
He said: “The hotel was open for two seasons, each six months. That’s a year’s monthly inspections – that would be 12 inspections.
“Just doing simple maths, before this incident there would have been something like 11 missed opportunities to identify this gas. Would you agree?”
Kenny said: “I decline to answer.”
Thomas said: “It must follow that Thomas Cook’s system failed.”
Kenny said: “I decline to answer.”
Mr Thomas said: “I know from the audit checks that Thomas Cook hadn’t identified there was gas there. Now is your chance to tell the jury how did Thomas Cook’s system fail so badly. What happened?”
Kenny again declined to answer.
He said: “You had responsibility for the people at the Corfu resort, is that right?”
She said: “I decline to answer.”
The inquest continues.
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