Prevention, they say, is better than cure.

That is the key lesson that should be learned from the tragic outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Edinburgh last week.

As we reveal today, the UK Health & Safety Executive and Scottish local authority environmental health departments have suffered serious cutbacks in recent years, losing up to one-fifth of their staff.

No-one can say for certain that the Edinburgh outbreak would not have happened had these cuts not been made. We can, however, be pretty sure that fewer inspectors and fewer inspections make it more likely that there will be further outbreaks like this in the future.

If some companies think they can get away with cutting corners to save money in these straightened times, they will – and the consequences could be more unnecessary deaths and illness.

The trouble is that the sort of intelligent, educative and proactive inspection regimes which are the best way to deter slack behaviour are among the easiest to cut. This is especially so when the agenda being set in London – and sometimes followed in Edinburgh – is for "light touch" regulation to help businesses.

If the toll from this outbreak – now up to 80 confirmed or suspected cases, and one death – shows anything, it is that light-touch regulation can be very risky. As the trade union for professionals, Prospect, argued, we need more inspections and inspectors, not fewer.

This does not mean that companies have to be tied up with miles of red tape. But it does mean that they should think twice about trying to save money by cutting back on keeping their cooling towers clean, or checking their emission levels.

The dangers of legionella bacteria are well known, and the measures necessary to prevent them multiplying and escaping from cooling towers or air conditioning systems are not a secret.

Crucially, the regulators must be prepared to get tough and go to court when necessary. There is nothing like a high-profile prosecution to send a clear message to would-be defaulters.

The danger here is the prospect that no organisation in Edinburgh ends up being charged because the source of the outbreak couldn't be identified with certainty. That would send out entirely the wrong message.

The point was made well last week by the renowned bacteriologist, Hugh Pennington. "This is not an act of God," he said. "This is a failure of maintenance by someone and simply should not happen."