Trust’s asbestos fine will impact on frontline services at our hospitals

Chief executive of West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust Samantha Jones
Chief executive of West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust Samantha Jones

The West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust has been ordered to pay out almost the equivalent of three ward nurse salaries for its negligence in dealing with asbestos exposure among its workers.

At a hearing in St Albans Crown Court this morning, the Trust which runs Watford, Hemel Hempstead and St Albans hospitals was ordered to pay almost £90,000 in fines and costs as a result of the failings, which took place over an 11-year period to 2011.

The financial penalty comes on top of the £1.6 million spent on safely removing and managing asbestos at one of the Trust’s sites in Watford.

According to chief executive Samantha Jones, the Trust also plans to spend a further £500,000 over the course of this year to make the site safe.

Colin McCaul QC, defending, told the court at an earlier hearing that every pound spent on a fine could be used for frontline services at the hospitals.

The Trust is this year running a deficit of £13,370,000 and it is now the case that no directors or members of the board are paid bonuses.

The mitigation document produced by the Trust revealed that any fine imposed by the court would have an adverse effect on the Trust’s ability to treat patients.

It reads: “Funds available to deliver services going forward are therefore likely to be restricted. To elaborate, it costs the Trust in the region of £25,000 to run a 30-bedded ward for one week.

“These costs will include clinical staffing costs, estates overheads such as heating and maintenance.”

The document also explained that it costs the organisation around £50,000 to fund the provision of drugs to patients across all three hospital sites for one day.

The total costs of pharmaceutical supplies obtained by the Trust for the previous financial year was in the region of £18million.

The £90,000 penalty awarded today would be almost equivalent to the costs of three nurses’ salaries on a ward for a year.

Though the five health and safety breaches – to which the Trust pleaded guilty – pre-dated Ms Jones tenure at the top of the organisation, the chief executive has apologised and taken ‘full responsibility’ for the failings.

She said: “Asbestos is common in buildings of the age of our hospitals, but the court found that the Trust had not taken its responsibilities as seriously as it should have done in relation to the safe management of asbestos, and for that I apologise.

“Importantly, we have made significant changes in recent years to the way we manage and control asbestos across our hospitals, ensuring the risk of exposure is at the lowest possible level.”

While none of the 47 estate staff contacted who were involved in work at the site have contracted any condition, prosecutor Adam Payter said there is a real risk they may contract a disease in the future.

Exposure to asbestos at work can lead to contraction of the chronic lung condition asbestosis, and even the rare cancer mesothelioma.