Police investigate fifth 'sabotage' of breathing tubes

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Police are investigating a fifth case of suspected sabotage of oxygen tubes in hospitals. In the latest incident, staff at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital discovered during a pre-operation check that small objects had been deliberately stuck into a tube.

Devon and Cornwall police are now talking to detectives in Essex where the criminal inquiries began after a nine-year-old boy, Tony Clowes, died of brain damage due to oxygen starvation during routine surgery on a finger.

Since the death, on 18 July at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, there have been three other instances made public of interference with tubes at Basildon Hospital in Essex, Watford Hospital in Hertfordshire and the Royal Bournemouth Hospital in Dorset.

Angela Pedder, chief executive of the Royal Devon and Exeter Healthcare NHS Trust, said yesterday: "We can confirm that Devon and Cornwall police are investigating an incident which occurred on Thursday 23 August in which foreign bodies were discovered in tubing used to deliver oxygen.

"Theatre staff observed the foreign bodies and the tubing was removed before the equipment was used on any patients and at no time were patients put at risk."

A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Constabulary said it appeared "the objects had been inserted inside the tube. The tube has been seized by detectives who are liaising closely with Essex Police, who are investigating a similar incident," he said.

The Essex coroner, Caroline Beasley-Murray, asked the police to lauch an inquiry after Jeremy Roberts, a 42-year-old policeman from Grays, Essex, was starved of oxygen while having a kidney removed on 2 August. She noticed the simlarities between his case and Tony Clowes' death three weeks earlier 15 miles away at Chelmsford.

Because of the publicity over the investigation, news emerged that in April the apparatus used on a 57-year-old woman at Watford Hospital was also found to be blocked – as was the breathing system used at Dorset on a 65-year-old man.

The patients all made a full recovery and there had been no recurrence of the incidents in the hospitals concerned.

The police inquiries had concentrated on establishing whether any staff members had worked at all the hospitals involved and also the questioning of workers where the tubes were produced.

An Essex Police spokesman said "We are keeping our options open. We are not focusing on agency nurses. We have no individuals in mind and no agencies. We are looking at staffing across the board."

Manufacturers had warned that the £1 tubes should be discarded after being used once. But the NHS had revealed that the tubes were often used repeatedly to keep costs down.

Detectives are convinced that the blockages were deliberate. An officer in the Essex investigation said: "We are exploring if these are copycat acts or whether the same person is responsible. That's why we do not want certain details to be made public for the time being.

"We do not want to show our hand and we do not want to start some sort of mass hysteria. We know that hospital staff are being extra vigilant across the country while this inquiry is proceeding."

Even if the blockages turn out to be accidental, and police find evidence of negligence, hospital staff could face criminal charges, including manslaughter.