NHS 'wargames' collapse of West Suffolk Hospital building

NHS bosses have developed plans for what to do should the West Suffolk Hospital building collapse.

NHS bosses have developed plans for what to do should defective concrete beams in the West Suffolk Hospital building collapse. - Credit: SARAH LUCY BROWN

NHS bosses are understood to have 'wargamed' what would happen should the West Suffolk Hospital building collapse due to defective concrete panelling.

The hospital is among those known to have been built using reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), which has been described as being like an "an Aero chocolate bar" and prone to cracking. 

The Sunday Times reported that health bosses had devised plans for what would happen should the concrete crack and part of the building collapse.

The Bury St Edmunds hospital is one of seven major hospitals affected by the issue. Others include Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire, and the Queen Elizabeth and James Paget hospitals in Norfolk.

It has been reported that should part of West Suffolk Hospital – or any of the other affected hospitals have to shut – a national incident would be declared with services and patients being moved to other parts of the country.

West Suffolk Hospital A&E.

West Suffolk Hospital A&E. - Credit: Archant

To help detect any problems with the building at West Suffolk Hospital, a team is continuously assessing the concrete planks using 'tap tests' and even radar to detect cracks or failures.

So far none have been detected, but if any were steel props could be used to temporarily hold up the defective roof section and 'failsafe supports' of steel and timber beams would be erected. 

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A spokesman for the trust said: “The safety of patients, staff, and visitors is our priority and we have always followed expert, independent advice when it comes to the management of our buildings to continue delivering a safe service for patients, who should continue to come forward for care as they usually would.

“There is a rolling programme of work to regularly check the planks, using the latest research and technology, alongside an extensive and planned programme of precautionary maintenance work to further ensure the safety of patients, visitors, and staff. We have several well-practiced measures in place to identify and fix any issues.

“Looking to the future we are in the early stages of our journey to design and develop our new hospital. We have established our strategic case for change, identified and acquired a site for our preferred way forward and are in the process of co-producing a new clinical model, having submitted an application for outline planning consent.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson stated the government's proposal to deliver 40 new hospitals across England by 2030 - with the final eight schemes to be announced later this year.

The spokesperson said: “We are taking action to improve health infrastructure across the country. We have provided more than £4 billion for Trusts to support local priorities, including to maintain and refurbish their premises, and have set aside over £685 million to directly address issues relating to the use of RAAC in the NHS estate.

News Gregg Brown 26/1/12Images of West Suffolk Hospital, where prisoner Andrew Farndon broke fr

West Suffolk Hospital - Credit: Gregg Brown

What's the problem with West Suffolk Hospital?

RAAC was a commonly used building material for large structures from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, but now construction expert Dr Saul Humphrey says problems are emerging with those some of those buildings.

Dr Humphrey said: "The method of construction made the concrete lighter, and contain more air bubbles which make the structure lighter and give it better thermal properties.

"A good comparison is an Aero chocolate bar.

"It was initially perceived to be a structure that would span further because it was lighter. Unfortunately, it has been found to be quite weak. And, most notably at King's Lynn, some failures have occurred.

"Now that we know that these slabs are cracking and failing, one starts to wonder if there's even a risk of complete collapse."

Dr Humphrey added: "Ultimately, they need replacing. There doesn't seem to be a solution yet where you can repair them. They need removing and replacing.

"If you're taking the roof off a building it's pretty invasive stuff. And if it's an operating hospital, it almost pushes you to the conclusion that it's easier to build a new one than it is to repair the whole roof of old buildings, which are so flawed."

How are plans for a new hospital in Bury St Edmunds coming along?

Plans for a new hospital in Bury St Edmunds were submitted to West Suffolk Council in April this year.

The proposed new hospital would stretch over 100,000 square metres on land at Hardwick Manor, next to the current hospital site.

It was picked by the government as one of 40 'new hospitals' to be built before 2030.

This claim has been called in for review by the government's official spending watchdog. The National Audit Office is planning a “value for money review” that could consider increasing costs due to spiralling inflation and whether the hospitals will in fact be new.

It seems unlikely that the West Suffolk plans will be cancelled by this review as the government cash is likely to be allocated to fix the problems with RAAC in hospitals. 

However, it has been reported that some other hospital projects may lose out on funding as a result.

Over the weekend, the Department of Health and Social Care insisted it was "on track to deliver 40 new hospitals by 2030".