Lord O’Shaughnessy (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health) delivered a written statement to the House yesterday, which has appeared in Hansard today.
This statement is to update the House on an issue concerning clinical waste collection and disposal for hospitals and other public services.
On 31 July, the Environment Agency notified central Government of an issue concerning clinical waste collection and disposal for hospitals and other public services provided by the company, Healthcare Environmental Services (HES). In this instance, the primary concern was that too much waste was being held in a number of waste storage and treatment sites by a contractor, Healthcare Environment Services (HES). While the waste was stored securely, it was not being processed and disposed of within the correct regulatory timescales. At no point has there been an impact on public health or any delay to the ability of the NHS to carry out operations.
The Department of Health and Social Care, Defra, the Cabinet Office, NHS England, NHS Improvement and the Environment Agency have worked together to resolve these issues. From the outset, the Government’s priority has been to ensure measures were put in place so that Trusts could continue operating as normal should there be any disruption to waste collection and disposal. This objective has been achieved. The Department of Health and Social Care has worked with the NHS to help Trusts put these contingency plans in place. A major part of these contingency plans concerned contractual discussions with HES and other providers which were commercially sensitive.
Following the Environment Agency’s issuing of a partial closure to HES’s Normanton site, on 3 October the regulator, NHS Improvement, issued a letter to HES to advise them that they had concerns in respect of services provided to trusts. To give HES an opportunity to set out how it was complying with its legal and contractual obligations, NHSI gave HES 48 hours to provide evidence that they were operating within legal and contractual parameters and set out a number of threshold levels. NHSI concluded that HES failed to demonstrate that they were operating within their contractual limits. Consequently, 15 NHS Trusts served termination notices to HES formally to terminate their contracts at 4pm on Sunday 7 October. In parallel, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Cabinet Office, NHS Improvement and the affected Trusts have negotiated a new contract with Mitie to step in and replace this service. This contract was enacted, following the termination of the contract with HES, and Mitie have been fully operational across all affected Trust sites from Monday morning.
Throughout, the Government’s priority has been to ensure measures were put in in place so that NHS Trusts can continue operating as normal. No gap in service provision has been reported and we are working to ensure that this remains the case.
The Environment Agency are taking enforcement action against HES to clear the excess waste from their sites and bring the company back into compliance with their permits. As part of this enforcement activity, the Environment Agency have partially suspended the company’s permit at their Normanton site. This will prevent HES from accepting any more incinerator-only waste, as the company focuses on clearing the backlog of waste on-site. The Environment Agency are also progressing with enforcement action at the other non-compliant sites. This includes following up the first enforcement notice for the HES Newcastle site. If the site does not become compliant, the likely next stage is a partial suspension to prevent the acceptance of incinerator only waste at Newcastle. It is the company’s responsibility to clear its sites and operate legally.
I am updating the House on this situation now, given that new contracts have been signed following the conclusion of the commercially sensitive process. I can confirm that NHS services continue to operate as normal. We are ensuring that there are contingency plans in place in case of any disruption, and that there is absolutely no risk to the health of patients or the wider public. The Government is working with the Environment Agency and NHS to ensure lessons are learnt, and we are reviewing how contracts will be awarded in the future.
This sounds reassuring, and of course it was surely intended to be just that.
What is not reassuring is the lack of any suggestion about the need to investigate the Environment Agency position in all of this, sitting on their proverbial and doing too little too late, thus making a crisis out of a situation that would surely have been easily remediated if they had done their job months ago.