Top-level intervention is needed following the botched storage and disposal of clinical waste following the collapse of Healthcare Environmental Services (HES), according to a public health expert.
In October last year, clinical waste disposal firm HES was found to be stockpiling hundreds of tonnes of clinical waste including body parts. The company said there was a lack of clinical waste incinerator disposal capacity, but this was denied by the Environment Agency and NHS.
A war of words followed, HES was stripped of NHS contracts and the company eventually collapsed. Contingency plans were meant to be in place but stockpiling appears still to be taking place, according to reports in the Health Services Journal (HSJ).
The Scottish NHS has also been affected, with claims in a Scottish newspaper that the bins previously used by HES had been replaced in some hospitals by wire-sided roll cages that could leak.
A report in The Herald said these were not being washed after transporting clinical waste, and there are fears they are also unwittingly being picked up at the back of the hospitals and used to transport food and bedding.
Professor Hugh Pennington, an emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, has chaired several high-profile inquiries into serious E.coli outbreaks in Scotland and Wales. He warned of a public health risk from the stockpiling.
Pennington said: “Needlestick and norovirus contamination of bedding from multiple use of wire-sided containers are the most important problems. System breakdown needs top-level intervention rather than leaving it to trusts to sort out.
“The expert group I chaired during the 1996 Wishaw E.coli outbreak worked well – it was chaired by an outside person but brought together interested parties, experts and civil servants to make recommendations in a short time frame, reporting to a Government minister and to Parliament.”
His call for a public inquiry was also backed by former Scottish health secretary Alex Neil.
The HSJ found “a number” of NHS organisations have “expressed concern” about the collection and disposal of clinical waste. It also found that a “significant” amount of clinical waste incineration capacity in the south of England has been lost temporarily after facilities closed for maintenance.
HSJ also reported that an attempt to export hundreds of tonnes of NHS waste to the Netherlands was abandoned last year.