Ageing NHS hospital 'must be open with public' over potential risk of roof collapse

The West Suffolk Hospital site in Hardwick Lane, Bury St Edmunds

The West Suffolk Hospital site in Hardwick Lane, Bury St Edmunds. Inset: Andy Yacoub of Healthwatch Suffolk and Craig Black, West Suffolk Hospital's interim chief executive - Credit: WEST SUFFOLK FOUNDATION TRUST/ARCHANT

There are calls for an ageing NHS hospital to be open with patients over any potential risk of its main building collapsing - after leaked documents uncovered evidence of disaster planning.

West Suffolk Hospital, in Bury St Edmunds, currently has more than two dozen metal supports propping up crumbling concrete planks made using a 1960s technique called reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).

Around 10,000 RAAC panels, which have a 30-year lifespan, are used in the hospital’s main site in Hardwick Lane - having been a popular construction choice in the 1970s, when the facility was built.

West Suffolk Hospital A&E.

The refurbished entrance of West Suffolk Hospital's emergency department, opened in 2014. The site itself opened in 1974 - Credit: Archant

Now, documents leaked to the BBC have revealed the depth of concern surrounding structural dangers at the trust.

According to the broadcaster, trust bosses even commissioned a report to assess the risk of being charged with corporate manslaughter should the hospital’s roof collapse and kill patients or staff.

It came after an initial risk assessment stated the chances of a plank collapse was “almost certain”, since downgraded to “likely” with the rollout of its safety programme, the BBC reports.

Trust chiefs say the safety of patients, staff and visitors is their priority and they have always followed expert advice.

An example of one of the 131 props in place around the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, incl

Around 200 metal supports are currently propping up the QEH in King's Lynn - Credit: QEH

They said there have been no plank failures at the trust and they are continuing to deliver safe services for patients - who should “continue to come forward for care as they usually would”.

Andy Yacoub, of patient watchdog Healthwatch Suffolk, recognised the hospital is doing “all it can” to keep staff and patients safe and make repairs.

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But he said communication with the public could have been better: “The (hospital’s) reasoning has been that it would cause unnecessary anxiety, but people inadvertently hearing/reading about it from other sources doesn’t help at all.”

Healthwatch Suffolk's chief executive Andy Yacoub.

Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, called for more transparency over the hospital's structural issues - Credit: Archant

Documents seen by the BBC also revealed the existence of emergency planning schemes such as ‘Exercise Hodges’, carried out in the east of England during 2020 simulating a partial hospital collapse due to a RAAC plank failure.

Another operation detailed was the invocation of a ‘mass casualty plan’ where ambulances would be diverted to other hospitals.

A hospital spokesman said: “There is a rolling programme of work to regularly check the planks, using the latest research and technology, and we have a number of well-practiced measures in place to identify and fix any issues immediately.”

£80million needed to ‘minimise risk’

Alarm bells were first sounded about RAAC planks in 2019 when a flat roof constructed using similar panels caved in at an Essex school. 

West Suffolk chiefs ordered a full structural survey after being warned its planks could be at risk of decay - because the concrete is porous it can let moisture in, attacking steel within.

Dr Steve Dunn, chief executive of West Suffolk Hospital Picture: TOM SOPER PHOTOGRAPHY

Outgoing chief executive Steve Dunn ordered a review of West Suffolk Hospital's structure after a school using similar concrete planks had a roof collapse in 2019 - Credit: Archant

Three years on, while trust bosses continue caring for patients, a continuous survey and assessment programme is underway analysing the condition of the planks - identifying signs of stress, carrying out ‘tap tests’, and using radar equipment. 

Bosses added that if and when an issue is identified, “failsafe” metal supports are being implemented across the hospital, as an additional safety precaution. 

A structural engineering report carried out in March 2021 made several suggestions, the trust said, and it did not recommend the closure of all or part of the hospital building.

The Darwin Group has built a new 32-bed decant ward at West Suffolk Hospital

A new, 32-bed decant ward was built at West Suffolk Hospital in July 2021 while work is carried out across the main site - Credit: Darwin Group

Currently, it is piloting a new approach for managing wall planks, using zinc anode technology to reduce potential corrosion.

And the trust has also just built a new 32-bed ‘decant’ ward consisting of bedded bays, nurse bases and a staff room while urgent repair works continue across the main part of the hospital.

West Suffolk is supposed to be getting a new site in the next decade - with nearby Hardwick Manor earmarked as the preferred choice. Such measures will stay in place until teams relocate to the new hospital.

But in the meantime, it is estimated that tens of millions of pounds are needed to tide the trust over - with bosses applying for £77.5million in emergency capital to help minimise the “risk of structural failure” back in 2019/20. 

An example of one of the 131 props in place around the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, incl

The metal supports holding up the roof at the QEH - Credit: QEH

It is not alone in facing complex structural issues - the facility is among four in the east of England, including the James Paget Hospital in Gorleston and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kings Lynn, built using similarly unstable panels.

Known as ‘best buy’ sites as they used simple construction methods to provide affordable accommodation between the 1960s and 1980s, there are seven NHS affected sites in total across the country.

The Government is spending an £110m pot to help resolve such issues this year - West Suffolk is expected to receive a £30m slice, while JPH is also in line for a portion of the cash.

Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, speaking exclusively to the E

In an exclusive interview with the EADT, former health secretary and West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock did not confirm any cash for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Despite a campaign by the EDP, fighting to rebuild the QEH with a petition backed by more than 6,000 people, no money has so far been pledged for the Norfolk hospital despite it being held up by 200 metal props.

In May this year, then-health secretary Matt Hancock - also West Suffolk MP - refused to say when or if the QEH will be given cash for a rebuild.

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