Sewage in rivers, sewage in the sea, now sewage in hospitals

As we go down the drain, does the government care a “SHIT”? 

The environment secretary has insisted that she does “give a shit” about water pollution. But the evidence speaks against. – Owl 

Sewage leak figures prompt warning over state of England’s hospitals

Andrew Gregory

Hospitals in England have recorded more than 450 sewage leaks in the last 12 months, data shows, putting patients and staff in danger and prompting warnings that the NHS estate is “falling apart” after a decade of underinvestment.

Freedom of information requests to NHS trusts by the Liberal Democrats found alarming examples of sewage leaking on to cancer wards, maternity units and A&E departments. The investigation also uncovered multiple cases of urine and faeces flowing into hospital rooms and on to general wards.

Health officials called the revelations shocking. In some instances, sewage leaks made entire hospital departments unsafe for patients and led to staff struggling to work because they felt nauseous and had headaches.

In total, there were 456 sewage leaks reported in the last year, although only 55 trusts responded, suggesting the true scale of the problem is much higher. It comes as the cost of overdue maintenance work on the NHS estate has soared to more than £10bn.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: “This is a national scandal. Our country’s hospitals are falling apart after years of underinvestment and neglect. Patients should not be treated in these conditions and heroic nurses should not have the indignity of mopping up foul sewage.”

He said there was still no sign of the 40 new hospitals promised by the government four years ago, and said the sewage leaks pointed to a wider neglect of the health service.

“At every turn, our treasured NHS is crumbling, from hospital buildings to dangerous ambulance wait times. The government needs to find urgent funds to fix hospitals overflowing with sewage. Patient and staff safety is a risk if ministers fail to act,” he said.

Leeds teaching hospitals NHS trust reported the highest number of sewage leaks in the last year, at 105, followed by North Tees and Hartlepool NHS foundation trust, which recorded 80.

At the Princess Alexandra hospital NHS trust in Harlow, Essex, where 40 sewage leaks occurred, staff detailed cases in written data logs. “Raw sewage smell is still ongoing and staff are struggling to work in these conditions,” one report said. “They are all experiencing feeling nauseous, having headaches and feeling very tired.”

Another staff member raised the alarm that one part of the hospital had become unsafe as a result of a sewage leak, adding: “It was embarrassing to run a department that has sewage leaking everywhere and offensive odour.”

The cost of repairs and maintenance to NHS buildings that should have already been carried out – which does not include planned maintenance work – has reached £10.2bn, according to NHS Digital.

It has said £1.8bn needs to be spent on the “high-risk” backlog, classified as needed “in order to prevent catastrophic failure, major disruption to clinical services or deficiencies in safety liable to cause serious injury and/or prosecution”.

Rory Deighton, of the NHS Confederation, said: “Health leaders are clear that many of their hospitals are in desperate need of repair, as these shocking findings demonstrate further. No one working in the NHS wants this for their patients or staff.

“It is no wonder that nine in 10 of our members recently told us a lack of capital investment is undermining their efforts to reduce their waiting lists and is putting patient safety at risk. This has been building up over the last 12 years where UK capital funding has lagged behind peer countries, and the government needs to demonstrate it is gripping on to the problem as a matter of urgency.”

A spokesperson for Leeds teaching hospitals NHS trust said: “As one of the largest teaching hospitals in the country, we have a huge estate spanning from Victorian to state-of-the-art – over 520,000 square metres and across seven hospital sites.

“While we have a comprehensive capital programme in place to ensure ongoing investment in our infrastructure, much of our estate is ageing. This causes a significant maintenance backlog, which inevitably leads to incidents such as leaks that require regular upkeep.”

Many of the leaks were minor, the spokesperson added, and a large proportion were caused by misuse, with inappropriate items being flushed into the system.

A spokesperson for the North Tees and Hartlepool trust said: “Staff reported 80 minor leaks to our estates and facilities team and there are no recorded major leaks to sewage.”

Michael Meredith, the director of strategy and estates at the Princess Alexandra hospital trust, said: “Sewage leaks occur across the site on a regular basis including below the ground, above the ground and in our basement. These are managed quickly and efficiently but they are unpleasant, especially where they occur in areas accessed by patients, our people or the public.”

He said the trust employs a 24-hour rapid response team to manage estate issues, and has a plan to deal with its maintenance backlog. “However, given the age and complexity of the estate and the delay in a decision around the funding for our new hospital, our backlog will continue to grow and will inevitably have an impact on service delivery.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “While individual NHS organisations are legally responsible for maintaining their estates, we are investing record sums to upgrade and modernise NHS buildings so staff have the facilities needed to provide world-class care – including £4.2bn this year and £8.4bn over the next two years.

“More widely, we have invested £3.7bn for the first four years of the new hospital programme and remain committed to all schemes that have been announced as part of it.”