Alex Neil blamed over hospital wards’ asbestos

TWO hospital wards that were controversially kept open by health secretary Alex Neil contained asbestos, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Alex Neil: acted to keep wards openAlex Neil: acted to keep wards open
Alex Neil: acted to keep wards open

Pressure mounted on the health secretary last night with the revelation that the potentially harmful substance was found in the two wards where mental health patients are treated.

Last week, Neil faced calls for his resignation when it emerged that one of his first acts on appointment as health secretary was to use his ministerial powers to save the wards at Monklands Hospital in his Airdrie and Shotts constituency.

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Neil came under fire for reversing the decision of his predecessor, Nicola Sturgeon, to remove the acute mental health beds from the hospital when he was appointed to the post by First Minister Alex Salmond in September 2012.

Last night, NHS Lanarkshire said that asbestos had been present on the hospital’s wards 24 and 25, but there was no risk to patients.

Neil intervened to keep the wards open, before handing responsibility for the matter to his deputy, Michael Matheson, citing concerns over a “conflict of interests”.

Last week, Salmond dismissed Labour’s claims that the health secretary had inappropriately intervened and resisted calls to sack him.

The health board confirmed that asbestos is still present on ward 25, some 20 months after Neil acted to keep it open. Asbestos has now been cleared from the neighbouring ward 24, but remained on site until the end of last month, the board stated.

Labour’s health spokesman, Neil Findlay, said: “Alex Neil must explain whether he knew about the asbestos in these wards when he ordered NHS bosses to keep them open.

“The more we find out about Alex Neil’s meddling, the worse it gets. Throughout this sorry affair, he has put his own political interests before patients.

“In order that we can have any confidence in his running of the NHS, he must explain his actions.”

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Neil admitted that he knew asbestos was present at Monklands, but the health secretary said he did not know which wards had been affected.

“I was arguing as an MSP for the need for a mental health facility, not to protect a particular location. That is the job of NHS Lanarkshire. The location of the service is the responsibility of NHS Lanarkshire.

“I knew there was a general problem with it at Monklands, but I couldn’t tell you what particular wards were affected. I would expect NHS Lanarkshire to ensure patients are in a safe place.

“We have known for years there is a problem with asbestos and that’s why the government has supplied funds to the NHS for this.”

An NHS Lanarkshire spokesman said: “Ward 24 is clear of asbestos, some remains in Ward 25.

“NHS Lanarkshire takes the decision to remove asbestos based on its condition and if it presents a risk, in line with Health and Safety Executive advice.”