Health experts fear that another outbreak of legionnaires' disease could go undetected because ministers have refused to set up a national warning system for the illness.
As the 123rd person to become infected in Barrow-in- Furness tested positive for the bacteria yesterday, the Government came under intense pressure to rethink its policies on the disease.
Ministers have refused to make it a legal requirement for hospitals to notify the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) whenever a case is detected in England and Wales, even though the Scottish Executive introduced this policy five years ago.
Experts at the PHLS, which runs the national disease databases, warned that this increased the risk that a fresh outbreak could go undetected, putting lives in danger, because links between indiv- idual cases will be missed. About 250 cases are detected each year, with 10 to 15 per cent proving fatal. The PHLS would urge the Department of Health to change this policy as soon as the Barrow outbreak is under control, said Dr Carole Joseph, the laboratory's legionnaires' expert.
"If we had a more complete set of data, we would be more likely to pick up linked cases," she said. "It may be that there are lots of laboratories that diagnose cases and don't forward them on. It's hard to know."
In Cumbria, where two people have now died in the Barrow outbreak, the number of confirmed and suspected cases rose to 160 yesterday, with 16 people in intensive care. The second victim was named as Wendy Milburn from Barrow. But Ian Cumming, chief executive of Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Trust, said the worst was over.
Meanwhile, David Hinchcliffe, the Labour chairman of the Commons health select committee, said he was "very surprised" to discover that ministers had refused to make legionnaires' a notifiable disease.Ministers should immediately add the disease to the notifiable list, he said.