Vulnerable woman dies burning charcoal for warmth after gas and electricity are cut off

Redbridge Town Hall

The council has until December 8 to explain what action it will take to prevent similar deaths - Credit: Ken Mears

An Ilford cleaner died while burning charcoal to stay warm after her gas and electricity were cut off. 

Helena Opoku, 67, was found dead at her Studley Drive home on April 4 2021, just a few months after Redbridge Council’s social services team was first warned she might be vulnerable. 

Despite the alert raised by hospital staff on January 7, the council did not assign Helena a social worker until April 1 and no contact was made before her death. 

Writing to Redbridge Council on October 12, following the conclusion of the inquest into Helena’s death, acting senior coroner for east London Graeme Irvine said he feared “future deaths could occur unless action is taken”. 

He wrote: “During January to March, the Redbridge… adult social care team in Cranbrook and Loxford were unable to properly investigate all but the most acute safeguarding referrals made to them. 

“During the same period, the team was unable to appoint social workers to vulnerable persons within a reasonable timeframe or carry out assessments of the suitability of the homes of vulnerable residents.” 

The social care team was alerted that Helena seemed to be neglecting herself by hospital staff, who were treating her for injuries she received in a car accident. 

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She spent a week in hospital after the crash, but coroner Irvine noted that following her discharge on January 14, “social services neither assessed Mrs Opoku, nor her home”. 

The inquest discovered when she returned home, Helena used charcoal braziers to heat her home and cook food because her gas and electricity had been switched off. 

A post-mortem discovered she died after inhaling carbon monoxide produced by burning charcoal in a poorly ventilated place. 

Coroner Irvine concluded his inquest on October 8 and sent a “report to prevent future deaths” to Redbridge Council a few days later, calling for action. 

The council’s social care team has until December 8 to respond explaining what action it will take to prevent similar deaths in the future, or otherwise explain why no action is proposed. 

A council spokesperson said: “Redbridge Council offers its sincere condolences to Mrs Opoku’s family.

"We have now received the coroner’s report which we are reviewing carefully and will be responding to in due course.

"At the time the safeguarding referral was received, the council was responding to a significant increase in demand for its adult social care services caused by the Covid-19 pandemic which impacted on the council’s staffing capacity.”