ERI blunder: Enough is enough

There are hopes that NHS Lothian could find a way out of the �60m-a-year PFI contract
There are hopes that NHS Lothian could find a way out of the �60m-a-year PFI contract
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In the wake of Consort’s latest ERI blunder, NHS Lothian chief looks to lawyers as he says health board will not tolerate any more mistakes

Health chiefs have vowed to take action over a series of “serious and potentially life-threatening” mistakes by contractors at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

NHS Lothian is consulting its lawyers to see what steps it can take against its PFI partner Consort, which owns and maintains the hospital.

The move comes after a catalogue of blunders culminating in a surgeon being forced to finish an operation by torchlight after Consort staff cut off the power supply to theatres – as the Evening News revealed yesterday.

Patients’ groups, politicians and unions today said they hoped the move was a sign NHS Lothian was looking to dump the firm, but experts have warned that is unlikely to be possible.

The current contract has 16 years left to run with almost £1 billion outstanding.

NHS Lothian executive director, Alan Boyter, said: “We are angry and frustrated with the performance of Consort. We have reached the point where we can no longer tolerate the repeated, serious and potentially life-threatening nature of these incidents at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh.

“We are currently consulting with our lawyers to discuss what options we have in relation to the contract and it would be inappropriate to comment further while that is ongoing.

“Patient safety is always our absolute priority and we will not allow that to continually be put in danger by a third party.

“We have in place detailed contingency measures to ensure that patient safety is maintained at all times in every situation.”

Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw, however, said he doubted the blunder would be seen as a breach of contract.

He said: “I think it’s appropriate for the NHS to take whatever remedial action they think is necessary. Consort have to get a grip of the management of the hospital. It would have been a tragedy if any loss of life had ensued. I would be surprised if this incident constituted a breach of contract. It’s a major hospital and thousands of people are being treated there every day.

“If an investigation concludes a fine is appropriate, that is the course to follow. I would be comfortable with that.”

Under the PFI agreement, Consort earns £60 million a year for operating non-medical services at the hospital such as maintenance, security and cleaning. Consort also built the hospital, and by the time its current contract with NHS Lothian runs out in 2028, the health board will have paid £1.26bn but will still not own the building.

It will have to either negotiate a price with Consort to buy the hospital, extend the lease by 25 years, or walk away.

Lothian branch chairman for Unison, Tom Waterson, said he hoped NHS Lothian would now find a way to split from Consort, but cast doubts over the likelihood of that happening. “I think to put Consort out would be a fantastic move and a move in the right direction,” he said.

“Whether I think that’s likely, given the way the contract is structured, I don’t know. I’m sceptical that they can do it. However, if there is any way we can get rid of them we should take it.

“I’m delighted that the penny has finally dropped for NHS Lothian given that we’ve been saying for years we should look at every possible way to remove ourselves from the contract. I would hope there’s a lawyer that can find a way to say ‘We’re not paying Consort any more public money’. Think how much better healthcare would be if £60m a year went into healthcare instead of into shareholders’ pockets.”

Norman Provan, associate director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, described the latest incident as “completely unacceptable”.

The operating theatre power cut comes just three months after a dad had to search for his newborn baby in a birthing pool using a light on his mobile phone when power in the ERI’s maternity unit was shut off.

Consort was fined £100,000 for that blunder and health chiefs said it would be hit in the pocket again.

In the latest mishap, the PFI provider was due to carry out planned maintenance after surgery had finished but started work too early, plunging the theatre into darkness and preventing emergency back-up power supplies from kicking in.

Consort declined to comment on NHS Lothian’s latest position but yesterday Consort director Stephen Gordon said: “Consort has taken this incident very seriously and have undertaken a thorough investigation into this matter in conjunction with NHS Lothian to review the current operating procedures in place for works of this nature.”

Labour’s health spokeswoman Jackie Baillie has repeated calls for an independent inquiry into what happened.

Margaret Watt, chairwoman of the Scotland Patients’ Association, said the contract was putting lives at risk. She said: “I would like to see them replaced for the benefit of our patients. That shouldn’t have happened and it’s not the first time.

“They shouldn’t get two hits, one hit is enough, because it’s patients’ lives we’re talking about, not fuses and plugs. They should pay a big penalty back, and the compensation they should pay is that we’ll have our hospital back and run it ourselves. It should be handed over to the NHS.

“These PFI firms, we don’t have the control over their people, we don’t even know their people have been checked out by Disclosure Scotland. PFI hospitals were a very bad idea.”

Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack added: “I think it’s hugely significant that NHS Lothian are now talking to their lawyers. We can only speculate about where it goes, but I welcome the fact that they’ve said that ‘Enough is enough’.

“We’ve had a series of blunders and unforced errors, there needs to be accountability here.

“This is a company that’s getting paid a huge amount of money to work for the public interest. These errors are not good enough and patient safety can’t be put at risk. I think this is a hugely significant move.”