Operations at risk from CO2 shortages unless ministers ‘prioritise NHS’, hospitals chief warns

‘We have to prioritise the NHS in all this because otherwise people will suffer’ NHS Confederation boss tells ministers

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 19 September 2021 16:41 BST
Alok Sharma insists gas supplies are secure

NHS surgery is at risk from the gas shortages unless ministers make it their top priority, a health service leader is warning.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is used in some operations, as well as to freeze meat and in the brewing and nuclear power industries – potentially putting the NHS in the firing line if shortages worsen.

Lord Adebowale, the chair of the NHS Confederation, revealed his fears, urging the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng to focus on “making sure there’s enough CO2 for the NHS”.

“CO2 is used in a number of interventions in the NHS: invasive surgery and endoscopy for instance, stabilising body cavities so that surgeons can see what’s going on inside,” he told Times Radio.

“So we have to prioritise the NHS in all this because otherwise people will suffer.

“But what it does really show is how interconnected it all is and we have to look at things systematically. It’s not just one thing, it’s a number of things.”

Lord Adebowale spoke out as the government sought to calm fears of shortages, while raising questions over the future of the energy price cap.

Surging natural gas prices have pushed seven energy suppliers out of business this year – and it is feared that another that four more may go bust very soon.

The UK relies on gas-fired power plants to generate almost half its electricity – and low wind speeds have also hit renewable energy generation,

Fertiliser plants in Teesside and Cheshire have shut and Ranjit Singh Boparan, the owner of Bernard Matthews and 2 Sisters Food Group, said the supply of turkeys at Christmas could not be guaranteed.

“The CO2 issue is a massive body blow and puts us at breaking point, it really does – that’s poultry, beef, pork, as well as the wider food industry,” he said on Saturday.

Mr Kwarteng will hold talks with the regulator Ofgem on Sunday and meet industry leaders on Monday, to thrash out ways to keep the industry afloat and prevent fuel poverty.

Alok Sharma, his fellow cabinet minister, sought to reassure people, saying: “We are not seeing risk to supply at this time and prices are being protected.”

Ian Wright, the chief executive of the UK Food and Drink Federation, warned on Saturday of the impact being felt within two weeks.

“We’re beginning to get into the pre-Christmas supply period when warehouses begin to pick up, build up their stocks, ready for the push to Christmas a few weeks later,” he said.

Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association also warned the pig sector is two weeks away from an animal welfare crisis because of disruption to the supply of animals for slaughter, saying: “Doing nothing is not an option.”

The CO2 shortage will also affect packaged products such as cheese and salads and long-life bakery items at supermarkets. “We need to sort it, quickly,” said Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland Foods.

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