Patient safety put 'at risk' by crumbling NHS hospitals in desperate need of repair

ITV News Investigations Correspondent Dan Hewitt reports on the shocking structural failures at NHS hospitals across the country

  • Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer Yohannes Lowe

Doctors have warned that patient safety is being put at risk by the state of crumbling NHS hospitals which have fallen into potentially dangerous disrepair, an ITV News investigation has found

Year-long leaks, collapsing floors, ageing roofs and potential for falling stone are among the issues - exposed in our investigation - which have caused whole wards to be closed down. 

One doctor told ITV News conditions are so poor in hospitals she has worked in that “we are always just hoping that the next time something happens it does not cause something catastrophic.”Half of the 87 hospital trusts in England that responded to our Freedom of Information requests had at least one unresolved structural or maintenance issue, as of October 2022.

Some stone cladding, for example, was having to be monitored on a six-monthly basis at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary amid concern over the potential for falling stone. 

In Torbay Hospital, a "high-level review" of concrete within the site's old building was carried out following the discovery of "significant structural defects" in the floors above two operating theatres. 

Meanwhile, the trust responsible for University Hospital North Tees Hospital has admitted that there are “significant safety risks that are likely to be associated with a hospital that is no longer fit for purpose”. 

The hospital is one of many suffering from what health bosses have described as a wider neglect of the NHS, which has seen the cost of overdue maintenance work on its estate now soar beyond £10bn. 

Footage shared with ITV News by staff working in NHS hospitals lays bare some of the appalling conditions doctors are forced to treat patients in every day.

Some leaks have been so severe they flood and close entire corridors, while some wards have become so unsafe they have been permanently shut.

Examples of lengthy delays to fix leaks across NHS trusts in England (as of October 2022):

  • The Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust (Liverpool) - leak on a stairwell unresolved for 8 years (2,920 days)

  • Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust (south-east London) - a leakage drainage left unresolved for 665 days

  • University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust - roof leak lasted for 453 days

Beacon Ward at St Helier Hospital, Epsom - which dates back to the 1930s - was condemned after the floors began to collapse and the walls started to crack last year. 

Another area in the extremely busy south-London hospital leaked so badly in November that it flooded, leaving a trail of damage and destruction.

In another sign of the site's dilapidated state, a room meant to be used as an intensive care unit is instead storing equipment because the ventilation system no longer works and cannot be replaced.

Doctors - already strained by crippling workloads and under intense pressure to cut treatment backlogs - have said the conditions are simply "not suitable" for patients to be treated in.

"I feel sometimes like the NHS is just held together with new licks of paint and plywood," Consultant Doctor Pauline Swift told ITV News Investigations Correspondent Daniel Hewitt during his visit to St Helier Hospital.

"There are leaks, a lot of leaks. Paint is peeling off the walls. You can see it with your own two eyes."

"It looks very much like a temporary shack if you would like."

"And I think what I worry about is that our patients are not normalised to this, and they come in then and wonder what sort of care are they going to receive.

"But I can assure you that they receive first class kidney care here but just in a very poor estate."

"The conditions that we give the care in are not suitable - not now, not ever and nor should they be."

'It looks very much like a temporary shack': Pauline Swift said the conditions patients receive care in 'are not suitable'

St Helier Hospital was among the sites former Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed would receive funding as part of his £3.7bn pledge to build 40 "new" hospitals across England by 2030.

Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals Trust said the government had confirmed hundreds of millions of pounds to develop a new specialist emergency care hospital, which was expected to open in 2025.

But the redevelopment of St Helier Hospital, which includes an upgrade to existing facilities, has been hit with delays. According to James Blythe, the trust's managing director, the new hospital will not be built until 2027 by the earliest.

The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, Norfolk, was not included in the list of 40 new hospitals announced by the government - but they desperately hope to be chosen for further funding schemes.

Since our report aired on Tuesday night, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital has told us that there are now 3,397 steel and timber support props in place around 56 areas of the hospital.

Around 80% of the hospital was constructed using concrete panels made of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC), according to data obtained by ITV News in an FOI request.

Described by one hospital boss as “a ticking timebomb”, this type of concrete is lightweight and cheaper than traditional concrete was used in construction between the 1960s and 1980s.

But it has now passed its life expectancy of 30-years and is more likely to collapse.

The hospital, opened in 1980, has reportedly had to close operating theatres because of concerns the ceiling could collapse, with one patient saying it felt as if they "were lying under a death trap" while staying there.

Doctors have told ITV News that such structural and maintenance problems are replicated throughout the country and are in some cases being hidden from patients.

One doctor said it feels like the hospital she works in is on the verge of a potentially catastrophic safety incident.

"It feels like we are always just hoping that the next time something happens it does not cause something catastrophic," she said.

"I feel like we should all be working in an environment where we know that the roof is going to hold and that everything is going to be fine."

Doctors have told ITV News that they fear problems have been played down and even hidden from patients

Another whistleblower said every single hospital he has worked in has had leaks and described how this can have a detrimental impact on patient care.

"I have had to push a critically unwell patient through dripping water, effectively, getting both me and the patient wet," he told ITV News. 

"There have even been some cases that I have heard where you have got raw sewage coming through ceilings into clinical areas."

"Now, of course in those situations the trusts act very quickly, they move patients. But that shouldn't be happening in the first place." 

The comments come after Sarah Hills, an NHS audiologist, documented her time as a patient at Croydon University Hospital, where she stayed in November to have emergency surgery for a kidney operation.

Dirty walls, a broken radiator and a tree growing through a toilet window all featured in the videos she recorded during her five day stay at the south-London hospital.

Ms Hills described the cold temperatures she had to endure when she was moved from the emergency surgical ward to a temporary ward where there was no heating.

Sarah Hills said she documented her experience at Croydon University Hospital to expose the wider state of the health service

"The first thing you felt was how cold it was," the 61-year-old, who used to work at the hospital in the 1980s, told ITV News.

"There was no heating whatsoever coming out of any of the radiators on the ward. My nose was freezing and it was bitter."

"So they brought down one portable oil filled radiator that was put near my bed. That was it for a whole ward."

"I looked up at the ceiling above my head and it was cracked and it concerned me would something drop from the ceiling".

The cold was so bad that, on one evening, Ms Hills, who has arthritis, said she walked around the hospital begging for pillows and blankets from other wards, despite being in pain.

Ms Hills said her "heart bled" for the staff trying to work through such "poor situations", considering that the "fabric of the building" around them was "literally crumbling".

A spokesperson for Croydon Health Services NHS Trust said: “This ward was used temporarily to increase the number of beds available to maintain safe care when demand was exceptionally high this winter, and we would once again like to apologise to Ms Hills.

"The care and comfort of our patients is our highest concern and we have ambitious plans to transform our estate, parts of which were built in the 1930s.

"As soon as we were made aware, we provided extra pillows and blankets and have since installed new double-glazed windows and heating on the ward.”

Meanwhile, Dr Latifa Patel, Britsh Medical Association representative body chair, said the government does not realise the scale of the problem of physical disrepair across the NHS estate, suggesting that an independent audit may help as a first step. "They have allowed this to happen, it is persistent underinvestment and poor care across the NHS and buildings is just a symptom of that," she told ITV News. Dr Patel added that NHS buildings are in such a state of disrepair that they are posing a "safety concern" to many patients and healthcare staff.

Dr Patel warned that leaks, rodents and ventalition issues are affecting patient safety

"We are not just talking about normal water leaks. We are talking about sewage leaks, we are talking about rodents, we are talking about poor ventilation," she added. "The fact that we are still very much in this pandemic phase to have concerns about ventilation and infection control is huge. "So, you can imagine leaks, sewage leaks, rodents, ventilation issues, that is directly impacting and affecting patient safety. You can't get any clearer than that."

Reacting to our investigation, Sir Julian Hartley, chief executive at NHS Providers, said our findings were just the "tip of the iceberg" of the scale of disrepair acorss the NHS' estate.

“This investigation highlights the serious state of disrepair across many NHS buildings and facilities. But this is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

“With a staggering £10.2 billion maintenance backlog across the NHS, the safety of patients and staff and quality of care is increasingly being put at risk.

“Trusts need urgent clarity and commitment from the government about these much-needed repairs as well as the New Hospitals Programme, which has been beset by delays.

“Many trusts are desperate to start work on fixing their crumbling estates but are waiting for funding to be confirmed. These delays are now leading to spiralling, inflation-driven cost increases far above initial forecasts."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are investing record sums to upgrade and modernise NHS buildings so staff have the facilities needed to provide world-class care for patients. “We have committed to eradicate RAAC from the NHS estate by 2035 and are protecting patient and staff safety in the interim period, including investing over £685 million to directly address urgent risks. “We will also deliver 40 new hospitals as part of the biggest hospital building programme in a generation, as well as over 70 hospital upgrades across England.”

If you have seen poor conditions or structural issues at an NHS hospital and would like to share your experience, then please contact us at investigations@itv.com.

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