ITV News Investigations Correspondent Dan Hewitt reports on the structural and maintenance issues plaguing a busy south-London hospital and other sites like it
At St Helier Hospital, the lifts break down so often they have sign up when they ARE working. “This lift is in operation” reads the temporary notice as we’re advised by staff to take the stairs to the Maternity Unit rather than the ageing elevator.
It has been known to break up to three times a day, one worker tells me. The lifts, though, are the least of the worries for NHS doctors and nurses working in a building that is quite literately falling apart.
Leaks, sinking floors, cracked walls, holes in the ceiling – this is the day-to-day reality of life inside a busy NHS hospital in Britain in 2023.
As one consultant puts it to me, in parts St Helier “looks very much like a temporary shack”. “I can assure you that they (patients) receive first class… care here,” says Dr Pauline Swift.
“The conditions that we give the care in are not suitable - not now, not ever and nor should they be."
Consultant Doctor Pauline Swift said the estate was in a 'very poor' condition
St Helier Hospital is a symbol of neglect. From the outside, parts of this south London hospital give the impression of an abandoned building.
There are holes in the window panes and branches growing out of the bricks. It’s once white façade is largely stained black. To walk its corridors though is to see the true scale of the damage and disrepair in which this very busy hospital has been allowed to descend.
Everywhere you look there is something wrong.
Windows are held shut by white masking tape and ceiling panels are missing from past leaks that caused whole corridors to be closed. This isn’t just superficial damage – the conditions are having an impacting on the capacity to care. We find the doors of the once-busy Beacon Ward padlocked shut. Black chains hang from the handles of the entrance doors which patients once walked through.
Last year, the hospital discovered the foundations of the ward were sinking – the floor was collapsing, the walls were cracking, and so they had to close it.
Precious space this hospital cannot afford to lose now lies permanently empty - too dangerous to house patients. In another part of the hospital, we are shown what was until recently an intensive care unit. Yet where there should be patients, there is row after row of medical equipment. The ventilation system is broken, and the building is too old to fit a modern replacement, and so the unit too has been closed. It is now used as storage instead.
“St Helier was built in the 1930s…and it has served the local community really well for the past 90 years, but it is a building that is largely no longer fit for purpose,” says James Blythe, the hospital's Managing Director. “It doesn’t meet some of the core standards that we would expect from a modern NHS hospital. Parts of it are really crumbling. “We work really hard every day to continue to provide safe and effective care from this estate, but we know that becomes a harder and harder job every year.” St Helier has been promised a new hospital as part of the government’s pledge to build 40 across England by 2030. A new building in Sutton was meant to be open by 2025, but the plans have already been delayed by two years and a new hospital isn’t expected to open until at least 2027. It is by no means an isolated case.
Our investigation has found at least 43 NHS hospital trusts with unresolved structural and maintenance issues. That’s 50% of all trusts that responded to our freedom of information request. I have spoken to doctors from trusts across England who have shared with me pictures and videos of the awful conditions they have work in every day, and their experiences should worry us all. People who need hospital care often arrive sick, at their most vulnerable, and sometimes scared. The medics they meet attempt to treat them, but also to reassure. What won’t reassure them are corridors of buckets filled with rain water; missing ceiling tiles; unsafe wards chained shut and metal props holding up the very building they are being treated in. One startling image shared with us from St Helier has stayed with me.
It’s of a receptionist on the Maternity Unit, continuing to work while above her head a bulging plastic sheet catches falling water leaking from the ceiling and into a large bucket.
Imagine seeing that, as you arrive on a ward to give birth, or just having had your baby? Hospital trusts stress everything is done to keep patients safe and ongoing issues are continuously monitored. The Department of Health and Social Care insist hospitals have record amounts of money to repair and maintain their estates, and 70 hospital upgrades are in the pipeline. Staff we’ve spoken to though question the urgency, and find themselves wondering just how safe some of the buildings they work in truly are. As one doctor working in the East Midlands said to me: “It feels like we are always just hoping that the next time something happens it does not cause something catastrophic. “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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know