Thirty-four hospital buildings in England have roofs made of concrete that is so unstable they could fall down at any time, ministers have admitted.
The revelation has prompted renewed fears that ceilings at the hospitals affected might suddenly collapse, injuring staff and patients, and calls for urgent action to tackle the problem.
Maria Caulfield, a health minister, made the disclosure in a written answer to a parliamentary question asked by the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, Daisy Cooper.
Caulfield said surveys carried out by the NHS found that 34 buildings at 16 different health trusts contained reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RACC), which one hospital boss has likened to a “chocolate Aero bar”. RACC was widely used in building hospitals and schools in the 1960s, 70s and 80s but has a 30-year lifespan and is now causing serious problems.
In 2020 Simon Corben, NHS England’s director of estates, declared that RAAC planks posed a “significant safety risk” because their age meant they could fall down without warning.
Caulfield’s admission means more NHS facilities are at risk from RAAC than previously thought. Until now it was believed 13 trusts were affected, but the minister put that figure at 16. Her answer did not identify the 16 trusts concerned or indicate how many of the “34 buildings containing RAAC planks” were hospitals in which patients are treated.
However, the identities of some of the hospitals concerned are already known, including Hinchingbrooke in Cambridgeshire, Frimley Park in Surrey and Airedale in Yorkshire.
“It’s simply unthinkable that patients are being treated in buildings that could be at risk of collapse,” said Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader. “From record waiting lists to crumbling hospital roofs, patients are paying the price of years of Conservative neglect of our NHS.”
Several hospitals are now having to use steel props to hold up roofs to reduce the risk of that happening. One – the Queen Elizabeth in King’s Lynn, near the Conservative leadership contender Liz Truss’s south-west Norfolk constituency – is currently deploying no fewer than 1,500 supports.
In a televised leadership debate with her rival Rishi Sunak last month, Truss voiced her concern about the large number of hospitals in England that had major structural problems. “I’m afraid some of our hospitals are falling apart. The Queen Elizabeth in King’s Lynn, near me – bits of the hospital are being held up by stilts. That is not good enough for patients across the NHS,” she said.
Caroline Shaw, the hospital’s chief executive, told the Sunday Times last month that “the roof is like a chocolate Aero bar. There are bubbles in the concrete and we’re checking it daily to make sure those bubbles don’t break, and the roof doesn’t come down. It really is like a ticking time bomb.”
She added: “For patients who are lying in bed and seeing these props, it does feel quite unsafe.” The hospital had to evacuate patients from its intensive care unit last year and move some to hospitals 40 miles away amid fear that the roof might collapse.
But Davey pointed out that Truss had been a member of recent governments that had resisted pleas from NHS leaders for a major increase in the service’s capital budget to enable an overhaul of its aging, sometimes dangerously inadequate estate.
“It is outrageous that Liz Truss is openly referencing that her local constituency hospital has been fitted with these roofs, despite sitting in cabinet and being a senior member of successive Conservative governments. This government’s failed NHS record of record waiting times and crumbling hospitals is also her record of failure,” he said.
Last year a whistleblower at West Suffolk hospital, which also has RACC planks, revealed to the BBC that it had commissioned a law firm to assess its risk of facing charges of corporate manslaughter if a sudden roof collapse proved fatal.
Hinchingbrooke last year banned patients weighing more than 19 stone from having surgery in two of its operating theaters in case it put too much strain on the floor.
Pippa Heylings, a Lib Dem councilor in Cambridgeshire, said: “We want to see a health minister at our local hospital this week to see for themselves and finally take urgent action.”
In her reply, Caulfield told Cooper that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had set aside £110m “to mitigate the immediate risk” and that trusts would receive £575m more to help. However, several of the affected trusts say it would be cheaper to build a new hospital than rebuild one riddled with RACC.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “We are taking action to improve health infrastructure across the country and have provided more than £4bn for trusts to support local priorities – including to maintain and refurbish their premises – and have set aside over £685m to directly address issues relating to the use of RAAC in the NHS estate.
“By 2030 we will have 40 new hospitals which will provide state-of-the-art facilities to ensure world-class provision of healthcare for NHS patients and staff by replacing outdated infrastructure.”