Havelock North water inquiry would look at fault, but not 'liability'

The inquiry into the Havelock North gastro outbreak would look at which organisation or individual was at fault but it would not determine any "civil, criminal or disciplinary liability", a court has heard.

The comment was made at the opening of the government inquiry into the outbreak at an initial public hearing in the Hastings District Court on Thursday, by Nathan Gedye QC, who appeared as counsel assisting for the Solicitor-General.

The Inquiry followed the widespread outbreak of gastroenteritis in Havelock North in August 2016, with more than 5200 people falling ill, following the confirmation of the presence of campylobacter in the water supply.

Gedye said the inquiry would look at how the event happened, what went wrong and how to prevent such an event occurring again.

The inquiry would not look at civil, criminal or disciplinary liability but would look at fault, he said, but acknowledged there was "a fine line between the two".

It needed to look at whether any organisation or individual was at fault "in order to make sensible decisions for the future".

He said the inquiry would be looking at the adequacy of all contingency plans, including those of the Hastings District Council, Hawke's Bay Regional Council and the Hawke's Bay District Heath Board.

Inquiry panel chair, retired Court of Appeal judge Lyn Stevens QC, opened the hearing by saying the inquiry's terms of reference "require us to investigate and report on how the Havelock North supply became contaminated, how the outbreak was addressed, the adequacy of the response and how to reduce risk of recurrence of an outbreak of this nature".

Havelock North gastro outbreak will have a lasting impact

The Havelock North gastro outbreak will have a lasting impact on how its inhabitants value drinking water for years to come.

He said the inquiry had to report back to government by late March next year and achieving that deadline would "require real co-operation from all parties".

He said it would be an inquisitorial process "and is not a court case".

Thursday's hearing, which lasted just an hour and 40 minutes, was about "getting the show on the road" and not about looking at facts or evidence.

Issues will be able to be addressed, and evidence given with witnesses cross-examined, at two later public hearings next month and in December.

Hastings District Council's lawyer Matthew Casey QC reiterated the apologies made by Mayor Lawrence Yule and ceo Ross McLeod for the contamination occurring and said the council would "do its utmost" to assist the inquiry.

He welcomed the fact that the panel's primary focus was not "pointing the finger" and trying to find who was at fault.

More than fifty people attended the hearing. Lawyers present represented the Hawke's Bay Regional Council, Hastings District Council, the Hawke's Bay District Health Board, the Health Ministry. Ministry for the Environment and the Department of Internal Affairs.

The purpose of the hearing was to take appearances from interested parties on preliminary and procedural matters, including the designation of parties as "core participants" under Section 17 of the Inquires Act 2013.

Parties able to be designated as core participants are those who have "played, or may have played, a direct and significant role in relation to the matters to which the inquiry relates", "have a significant interest in a substantial aspect of the matters to which the inquiry relates", and/or have been "subject to explicit or serious criticism during the inquiry or in the report".

Core participants have the right to give evidence and make submissions to the inquiry, subject to any directions of that inquiry.

Two elderly women who died were found to have contracted campylobacter, but both had other health issues. Two people developed Guillain Barre Syndrome, a serious neurological condition that can develop in the weeks after a campylobacter infection.

Testing through the health system led the Hastings District Council and the Hawke's Bay District Health Board staff to suspect that Campylobacter as the primary infectious agent.

The other inquiry members are New Zealand Qualifications Authority chief executive Karen Poutasi and Wellington City Council chief engineer Anthony Wilson.

Further public hearings will be held between November 28 and December 2 and between December 12 and 20.

- Stuff

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