Thirty-four hospital buildings in England have concrete roofs so unstable they could collapse at any moment, ministers have admitted.
The revelation has sparked renewed fears that ceilings in affected hospitals could suddenly collapse, injuring staff and patients, and calls for urgent action to address the problem.
Maria Caulfield, a health minister, made the disclosure in a written response to a parliamentary question from Daisy Cooper, the health spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats.
Caulfield said investigations conducted by the NHS found that 34 buildings belonging to 16 different health facilities contain reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RACC), which one hospital chief has compared to a “chocolate aero bar”. RACC was widely used in hospital and school construction in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but has a lifespan of 30 years and is now causing serious problems.
In 2020, Simon Corben, NHS England director of estates, stated that RAAC planks posed a “significant safety risk” because their age meant they could fall without warning.
Caulfield’s admission means more NHS facilities are at risk from RAAC than previously thought. So far, 13 trusts were believed to have been affected, but the minister estimated that number to be 16. Her response did not identify the 16 trusts involved and did not specify how many of the “34 buildings with RAAC planks” were hospitals in which patients were treated.
However, the identities of some of the hospitals involved are already known, including Hinchingbrooke in Cambridgeshire, Frimley Park in Surrey and Airedale in Yorkshire.
“It’s just inconceivable that patients are being treated in buildings that are at risk of collapsing,” said Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader. “From record waiting lists to crumbling hospital roofs, patients are paying the price of years of conservative neglect of our NHS.”
Several hospitals now have to use steel supports to hold up roofs to reduce the risk. One – the Queen Elizabeth in King’s Lynn, near Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss’s constituency in southwest Norfolk – is currently deploying no fewer than 1,500 supports.
In a televised debate with her rival Rishi Sunak last month, Truss expressed concern about the large number of hospitals in England experiencing major structural problems. “I’m afraid some of our hospitals are falling apart. The Queen Elizabeth in King’s Lynn, near me – parts of the hospital are propped up on stilts. That’s not good enough for patients across the NHS,” she said.
Caroline Shaw, the hospital’s director, told the Sunday Times last month that “the roof is like an aero chocolate bar. There are bubbles in the concrete and we check it daily to make sure those bubbles don’t break and the roof doesn’t come down. It really is a ticking time bomb.”
She added: “For patients laying in bed and seeing these props, it feels quite unsafe.” The hospital had to evacuate patients from its intensive care unit last year and move some to hospitals 40 miles away, fearing the roof could collapse.
But Davey pointed out that Truss had been a member of recent governments that had resisted pleas from NHS leaders for a major increase in the agency’s capital budget to allow for an overhaul of the aging, sometimes dangerously deficient estate.
“It is outrageous that Liz Truss openly refers to the fact that her local hospital in her constituency is equipped with these roofs, despite being in a cabinet and being a high-ranking member of successive Conservative governments. This government’s failed NHS record of record waiting times and crumbling hospitals is also its record of failure,” he said.
Last year, a whistleblower at West Suffolk Hospital, which also has RACC boards, revealed to the BBC that it had commissioned a law firm to assess the risk on charges of corporate manslaughter if a sudden collapse of the roof proved fatal. to be.
Hinchingbrooke last year banned patients weighing more than 19 bricks from undergoing surgery in two of his operating rooms in case the floor became too heavy.
Pippa Heylings, a Lib Dem councilor in Cambridgeshire, said: “We want to see a health minister at our local hospital this week to see for ourselves and finally take urgent action.”
In her response, Caulfield told Cooper that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had earmarked £110 million “to reduce immediate risk” and that trusts would receive £575 million more to help. However, several of the affected trusts say it would be cheaper to build a new hospital than rebuild one packed with RACC.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “We are taking action to improve health infrastructure across the country and have provided over £4bn to trusts to support local priorities – including maintaining and refurbishing their buildings – and have raised over £685 million set aside to directly address issues related to the use of RAAC in the NHS estate.
“By 2030, we will have 40 new hospitals that will provide state-of-the-art facilities to ensure world-class healthcare for NHS patients and staff by replacing aging infrastructure.”