Temperatures on a maternity ward dropped so low because of faulty air conditioning that babies were at risk of becoming hypothermic, a KentOnline investigation has found.
The worrying episode at the William Harvey last March is one of a catalogue of failures caused by poor infrastructure at east Kent’s hospitals, which together face a £28.3 million backlog of urgently needed maintenance jobs.
A total of 214 separate incidents which put patients "at harm or risk of harm" were recorded in a single year across the health trust’s estate, which also includes the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, the QEQM in Margate, the Royal Victoria in Folkestone, and Buckland in Dover.
Unbearably high temperatures, leaking ceilings and wasted medicines are among the other hazards listed between April 2017and March 2018.
Persistent problems with temperature control left staff in Ashford feeling “physically sick” on one day in June, while in September a patient fainted because of the sweltering heat.
An operating theatre at the QEQM was also among units to record dangerously high temperatures of 29C in October, with surgeons threatening to cancel lists.
Elsewhere, the chemotherapy ward at Kent and Canterbury Hospital and William Harvey’s labour ward and maternity day room - where patients frequently spend hours at a time - both recorded temperatures of up to 33C over the summer.
But in the preceding winter, numerous incidents were also logged showing patients were too cold, on one occasion having to be wrapped in blankets to stay warm.
Endoscopy examinations at the William Harvey also had to be cancelled last March after the ceiling of a theatre room flooded.
At the same hospital, rainwater poured into the waiting area of a surgical emergency admissions unit in July and August, despite the issue being reported to estates staff, while in a separate incident a patient was left with bruises after a cupboard fell off a wall.
In another, a leaking ceiling in a treatment room caused tiles to collapse onto a patient trolley, and in May, faulty traffic barriers led to queues of vehicles building up in the hospital’s car park, blocking off ambulances and other emergency services.
A broken fridge at the Kent and Canterbury also led to chemotherapy medication going to waste in December, while a lack of working lifts at Buckland Hospital in Dover resulted in dialysis patients having to walk up stairs to receive treatment one day in September, leaving them feeling unwell and short of breath.
On another occasion at the QEQM, the fire brigade was called to the hospital after eight people became stuck in a broken lift.
Incidents occurred most frequently at the William Harvey, where 101 were recorded, followed by 59 at the QEQM and 38 at the Kent & Canterbury.
Ken Rogers, chairman of campaign group Concern for Health in East Kent (Chek), says the trust’s estate problems are down to squeezed NHS budgets, making it all the more important for health bosses to reach a decision on a proposed shake-up of emergency care.
There are currently two proposals on the table; one would result in the Kent & Canterbury being downgraded to an urgent treatment centre, with A&E departments at Ashford and Margate, while the second would see a new super hospital built in the city, with A&Es at Ashford and Margate closing.
Mr Rogers said: “The trust is short of money, the CCG is in special measures, and it’s money that makes these things happen.
“When the trust is pressed for money, that has an impact on patient care.
"I think all trusts in this situation would probably try to put their money towards patient care rather than the fabric of their estate, but unfortunately that results in things that should never happen.
“It’s easy to see that the three main hospitals are all getting old now.
“When we go forward with option one or two, we need to make sure money is spent on all three sites to bring them up to scratch and make sure they are fit to provide good patient care.”
It comes as the East Kent Hospitals trust needs to carry out £28.3m worth of urgent repairs if it is to prevent “catastrophic” failures and major disruption to clinical services.
Kent and Canterbury Hospital, which was built in 1937, is sitting on an £8.1m backlog of ‘high-risk’ repairs, while the cost of eradicating the urgent backlog at Ashford’s William Harvey is £9.5m, and £10.6m for Margate’s QEQM.
The NHS defines ‘high-risk’ repairs as those which have the potential to cause “catastrophic failure, major disruption to clinical services or deficiencies in safety liable to cause serious injury and prosecution” if not dealt with immediately.
The cost of clearing the trust’s high-risk backlog stood at £5.5m in 2013/14, representing a five-fold increase in four years.
A spokesman for East Kent Hospitals Trust said: "The maintenance of buildings and estate is a common issue for many NHS organisations.
“We work hard to keep them up to date to meet the demands of modern healthcare delivery, especially considering some of our estate dates back to the 1930s,” they said.
“Our hospitals operate an ongoing maintenance programme.
"However, there are a number of areas that we know need redeveloping and investing in for the future.
“One example of this is investment in temperature control.
"We are putting £600,000 into ensuring every clinical area in our three large hospitals has dedicated air conditioning where possible, or access to cooling units in place by the summer.
“We are trialling a new system at Kent and Canterbury Hospital to monitor both cold and hot temperatures remotely via a sensor fitted in specific areas.
"This means the temperature can be monitored centrally. We always ensure that the safety of services is maintained at all sites.”
An MP fighting for a new hospital in Canterbury has described the findings as “very troubling”.
Helen Whately, the Conservative member for Faversham, says the number of safety failures shows that parts of the hospitals trust’s estate is not fit for purpose.
“Anyone who goes into an NHS hospital should know that they will be safe, so any incident where patients are put at risk is very troubling,” she said.
“Leaking ceilings, broken fridges and faulty air conditioners can have serious consequences in a hospital – and while I understand very few people were actually hurt, it’s not right that crumbling infrastructure is putting patients in harm’s way.
“Our local hospital buildings – particularly the Kent and Canterbury – are old and need improving.
“That’s why I’m arguing for a new, modern hospital to give patients the best possible care.”
Ashford MP Damian Green says the number of incidents at the William Harvey shows there are “big issues that need to be addressed”.
“We have known there have been problems there in the past couple of years,” he said.
“The government has committed a huge pot of money as part of the new NHS Plan and I constantly work hard to try and make sure the William Harvey has its fair share.
“It’s had some help to get out of its problems, and I’m always keen to lobby for the hospital to get to the highest standard possible.
“It’s clear that there have been problems from the findings.
"What’s important is that these are incidents where people are at risk of harm.
"I’m not aware of serious problems for individuals but [these incidents] would be very serious.
"They need to work on staffing levels and maintenance, and it all needs to be right for them to ensure that the hospital’s standard remains high.
“The government has just announced the 10-year plan and an extra £20 billion to cover that.
"I hope we’ll see some of that money come to east Kent so the maintenance backlog can be worked on.”
Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield was approached for a comment about the findings but did not respond.