Hospitals must be “urgently” investigated for unsafe concrete but the crisis cannot be allowed to disrupt patient care, the UK’s leading nurses body has warned.
Two dozen hospitals have structures at risk of collapse as a result of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC), the Government confirmed on Friday. Seven of the 24 hospitals need a full replacement.
Leona Cameron, Head of Health, Safety and Wellbeing at the Royal College of Nursing, said that those responsible for the management of at-risk hospitals must “act urgently”.
Ms Cameron said that “nursing staff should expect to go to work in a place that is safe for them and their patients” but warned that RAAC removal should not compromise patient care.
“The risks associated with RAAC construction material being used in hospitals has been known about for some time, and safety alerts have been issued warning of the risks,” she said.
“For those trusts where there is an ongoing risk – we expect those responsible for the management and maintenance of hospitals and healthcare buildings to act urgently. This means investigating where RAAC has been used and taking appropriate action to make buildings safe and ensure there is no disruption to care.”
Millions of pounds are already being spent on mitigating the risks of lightweight concrete in hospitals, the chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee has said, describing the sums as “eye-watering and wasteful”.
Labour MP Dame Meg Hillier said: “(You) wonder why it has been left to deteriorate for so long.”
“In both schools and hospitals, there hasn’t been enough money going into buildings and equipment,” she told Times Radio.
Dame Meg said hospitals are working around the problems they have with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), a lightweight material prone to collapse which was used until the 1990s, which she added was is costing an “enormous amount.”
“The cost of doing it is enormous. We’re talking millions of pounds to survey a roof in a corridor in order to make sure they know where the problems are… Every time another problem arises, they have to go back and do another survey,” she said.
She said the costs were “eye-watering and wasteful when you think about the problems in the NHS at the moment”.
The possible closure of hospital buildings for RAAC investigation and removal threatens to pile pressure on a health service already creaking under strain.
The NHS is already bracing for a “terrifying” winter, senior doctors have warned, as staff shortages worsen wait times for urgent care and further doctors’ strikes exacerbate existing pressures.
The use of RAAC was thrust into the spotlight this week when the Department for Education unexpectedly changed safety guidance on its use in schools, following the collapse of a beam in a school that had no external signs of risk during the summer.
At least 156 schools in England have now been told they must close buildings, just days before the start of the school term.
The Government refused to release a full list of the schools affected, leaving parents unclear whether their children’s schools would reopen on Monday and drawing condemnation from its own MPs.
But experts warned that the crisis extends far beyond schools, with one building contractor saying that any facility constructed from the 1950s to 1980s could contain RAAC and needed to be checked.
James Porter, a partner at building consultancy firm Rapleys, said there was “every chance” that facilities like hospitals and prisons would also be affected.
The DfE’s change in guidance sparked chaos across Whitehall, with other departments going “bat***t” as they were forced to rapidly reassess their own concrete supply.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The NHS has a mitigation plan in place for hospital buildings with confirmed RAAC, backed with significant additional funding of £698 million from 2021 to 2025, for trusts to put in place necessary remediation and failsafe measures. We remain committed to eradicating RAAC from the NHS estate entirely by 2035.
“Additionally, we have announced that the seven most affected NHS hospitals will be replaced by 2030 through our New Hospital Programme.
“The technical advice received from the NHS is that the current approach to monitoring and mitigation remains appropriate.”