£3bn repair backlog in 'crumbling' NHS

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Britain's hospitals face a £3.07bn backlog of repairs and maintenance, according to new Department of Health figures. They will alarm a Government whose reputation is riding on its ability to transform the health system into a modern and functioning service.

The figures, released to the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Dr Evan Harris, in a parliamentary answer, show the health authority with the biggest backlog is Birmingham, which must spend £173m to repair its hospitals. The backlog at Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham, in south London, totals £127m, while east London hospitals need £113m. Manchester needs to spend £111m.

Dr Harris told The Independent on Sunday: "These dry figures actually show how many of our hospitals are crumbling for want of investment over many years. This is not money to improve our hospitals but simply to bring them up to a reasonable state of repair. These figures also demonstrate why Labour are in such a panic over the NHS. They stuck to Conservative spending plans for three years and the decline in the NHS continued accordingly."

The Association of Community Health Councils, which represents patients, said many hospitals were in a "disgraceful condition". Dr Peter Hawker, chairman of the British Medical Association's consultants committee, said: "Shabby, decrepit buildings are commonplace ... This is not good for patient safety. In some cases it is downright dangerous and it must undermine public confidence in the NHS."

A survey of 700 hospitals earlier this year showed that one in three failed basic cleanliness checks and it is estimated that about 5,000 patients a year die from infections contracted in hospitals.

John Hutton, the health minister, in his written reply to Dr Harris, explained that the money needed to be spent to achieve "estate code condition B". Mr Hutton said: "In relation to a building's physical condition this is the condition whereby the property is considered to be physically sound, operationally safe and exhibits only minor deterioration."

The Government said it was tackling the problem through an extensive building programme, funded by private finance initiative deals. A DoH spokesman said: "Some buildings in the NHS are outdated and have no place in the modern NHS. That is why the Government has made a commitment to deliver 100 new hospital schemes between 2000 and 2010. The biggest hospital building programme is already under way, with 68 major new hospitals approved. Ten of these have already opened and a further 15 are under construction."

The size of the Government's task in overhauling the health service is compounded by further new figures which reveal how little progress is being made in getting waiting lists down. Despite a commitment that no one should wait more than 18 months for an operation, in the past 12 months the number of such patients has jumped from two to 208. Half of that increase, according to the DoH, was due to a shortage of instruments for tonsillectomies. Instruments can only be used once because of a "theoretical risk" of a patient contracting vCJD, the human form of mad cow disease.

The number of patients waiting more than a year has dropped by 7,000 to 44,462, but the number waiting between six and 12 months has risen by 8,000 to 232,786; the number waiting under six months has dropped by about 10,000 to 757,846. The DoH spokesman defended its record on waiting lists. "There are 123,000 less patients waiting for hospital treatment than in March 1997, and waiting times are also coming down," he said.

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