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04 December 2020

THERE are occasions when a casual phrase assumes a significance far greater than was intended. Philip Heath is a technical manager at Kingspan, the company that made the insulation used on Grenfell Tower in west London, where 72 people died in the fire in June 2017. The official Grenfell inquiry has been grinding through the evidence to establish the causes of the fire, and on Monday it caught up with Mr Heath. Another technical manager, Ivor Meredith, has already confessed to a “deliberate and calculated deceit by Kingspan”, telling customers that its K-15 Kooltherm foam insulation was safe to use in high-rise buildings. The combustibility test results of an earlier product were used to suggest that K-15 was cleared for use, something that another contractor, Bowmer & Kirkland, queried in 2008. An email from Mr Heath to colleagues was produced at the inquiry: “I think Bowmer & Kirkland are getting me confused with someone who gives a dam [sic]. I’m trying to think of a way out of this one, imagine a fire running up this tower !!!!!...!!!! Any ideas...?”

The phrase must now haunt Mr Heath, but not as much as it will haunt those who lost family and friends in the Grenfell fire. There is a sense of satisfaction, of course, as the players in this drama are dragged out from behind the protection of their lawyers; but that cannot diminish the horror at hearing such cavalier attitudes — and cruder ones than these — expressed by people responsible for the safety of the residents of buildings in which their products were sold.

On the one occasion in the Gospels that Christ refers to a contemporary disaster, the collapse of the Tower of Siloam (St Luke 13), he talks only of the victims. They were neither more nor less sinful than anyone else, and the falling tower was not an act of God’s judgement. We cannot know, then, whether he would have extended the same approach to those who built the tower or failed to maintain it. We have, in the past, expressed sympathy for those who now have deaths on their consciences through the sorts of incompetence and lack of forethought that, in other professions and in other circumstances, would have no serious consequences. It would be unwise, however, knowingly to sell inflammable insulation and rely on Christ’s equanimity.

Kingspan are by no means the only company under scrutiny. The Grenfell inquiry will expose, and has already exposed, other individuals and organisations on whom a share of the blame for the fire must fall. There was, for example, another foam insulation used incorrectly in the building. It is hard to imagine the levels of fortitude being demanded of the Grenfell survivors by these proceedings; but the pain of hearing such sentiments is easier to bear than the silence behind which those with a responsibility for the fire sought to hide, and which the inquiry is patiently stripping away.

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