A doctor and mother of two with just months left to live has warned of a “hidden epidemic” of asbestos-related cancers among NHS staff and patients because hospitals have failed to properly handle the toxic material.
Kate Richmond, 44, has spoken out to raise awareness after she won a legal case against the NHS for negligently exposing her to asbestos while she was working as a medical student and junior doctor.
An investigation by The Independent has learnt there have been 13 prosecutions linked to NHS breaches of regulations for the handling of asbestos since 2010, while 381 compensation claims have been made by NHS staff for work-related diseases, including exposure to asbestos, since 2013, costing the health service more than £26m.
According to data from the Health and Safety Executive, between 2011 and 2017, a total of 128 people working in health and social care roles died from mesothelioma, the same asbestos-related cancer which is killing Kate Richmond.
She described how maintenance staff removed asbestos ceiling tiles with no protective measures, allowing dust and debris to fall on to wards where patients were in their beds and staff were working. Managers at the Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry failed to heed warnings by workers that they were putting people at risk.
“They made an economic decision that condemned me to death,” said Dr Richmond, adding: “No amount of money can compensate for my children growing up without their mother.”
She believes the true extent and cost for NHS staff and patients is likely to be much worse than current data suggests as it can take up to 50 years for disease to emerge after exposure.
Speaking to The Independent from her home in Australia, Dr Richmond, who has been told she may die as soon as July this year, described how she was exposed to asbestos at the old Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry, run by the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire Trust between 1998 and 2004.
As well as the exposure during maintenance work on wards, she said she regularly used underground service tunnels, where asbestos-lined pipes were common, to move between areas.
Her lawyers, from law firm Leigh Day, successfully brought a claim against the hospital after a former maintenance worker responded to a public appeal and corroborated her testimony that they openly worked on ceiling tiles and asbestos materials with no safety measures.
In a statement one worker described how debris fell from the ceiling: “We had to clean it up afterwards, so I just swept up the dust. It was always busy, so we just put a couple of cones up where we were working. The doctors and nurses walked past where we were working.”
More than 20 former members of staff provided evidence of asbestos at the hospital and emails revealed managers had been warned of the risk. The court ruled there had been “serious and repeated failings”.
A decision on the amount of compensation she will receive may not be made for several months.
“I will be lucky if this comes to a close while I am still alive,” she added.
Explaining why she took legal she said: “The trust knew about it and they chose to do nothing. It is terrifying. I have become sick relatively early, but there are lots of other people who I worked with who could be affected in the future. I really wanted to make things easier for them. I felt I had a duty to my colleagues.
“I am far from unique, this is the tip of the iceberg. I strongly believe there is a hidden epidemic.”
She added: “We had no idea and just walked around the ladders with the dust and debris falling down into the ward where there were still patients in their beds.
“It is indefensible not to do the right thing. The managers who make these decisions, I don’t know how they sleep at night. They made an economic decision and it condemned me to death.”
The GP, who emigrated to Australia with her husband Brett, has endured six operations and chemotherapy after being diagnosed in May 2018.
She said: “My children were nine and six at the time and I’ve had to come to terms with the fact I am not going to be around to bring them up. It has taken all my dignity, my ability to care for my children and I can’t work so it’s taken me away from my patients too.”
She and her husband are now having to prepare for life after her death.
“Brett has been very strong. We have long conversations about whether the kids should be there when I die, whether I am going to die in a hospice or hospital, all these conversations you never want to have. No amount of money can compensate for my children growing up without their mother.”
Mesothelioma is a form of cancer that affects the lining of the lung and is almost always fatal, causing around 5,000 deaths a year.
Many older NHS hospitals built between the 1950s and 1980s may contain asbestos, which can be dangerous when disturbed. Strict regulations are in place for how to handle its removal.
The Health and Safety Executive said it had launched 13 prosecutions against six NHS trusts for asbestos failings since 2010.
In 2019 it prosecuted the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust after it exposed workers and contractors to asbestos despite concerns being reported to trust bosses by whistleblower Les Small, who won an unfair dismissal ruling against the trust before his death from cancer last year. The trust was fined £16,000 and ordered to pay costs of £18,385.
NHS Resolution, which handles compensation claims on behalf of hospital trusts, told The Independent: “Since 2013, NHS Resolution has received 381 industrial disease claims and has paid out £26.1m in compensation during this same period (damages and legal costs combined). However, these are matters that stretch back over many years.”
NHS Providers, which represents NHS hospitals, has warned the mounting backlog of maintenance work in the NHS, including dealing with older buildings that contain asbestos, is a risk to safety. It is calling on the government to launch a major investment programme.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Ensuring staff and patient safety is a fundamental priority for trusts. That means being able to provide the right environment. But years of cuts to capital funding have made this increasingly difficult and this is showing.
“Trusts urgently need the resources to renew and refurbish buildings and equipment. Their staff, and patients, deserve nothing less.”
A spokesperson for the University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire Trust said: “We would like to extend our heartfelt sympathies to Dr Richmond and her family at this difficult time. We believe there were stringent controls in place to manage asbestos at the old Walsgrave Hospital, which closed in 2006.
“After a thorough review with those directly involved at that time, the trust felt that the opportunity for any incidental exposure would have been very low. We are pleased that the settlement will enable Dr Richmond to meet her ongoing care needs and will provide security for her and her family into the future.”
An NHS England spokesperson said: “Hospitals have established processes in place including undertaking inspections, maintaining a register and when appropriate disposing of relevant materials safely.”
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