Power crisis shuts down new ERI

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AN inquiry was under way today after Edinburgh’s flagship new hospital was left without power for an hour.

Intensive care monitoring systems failed at the city’s 184m ERI and staff were forced to rely on batteries to keep equipment working during the blackout.

Health Minister Malcolm Chisholm today demanded an urgent report following the incident yesterday afternoon at the privately-financed hospital, while the chairman of NHS Lothian called it an "intolerable situation".

The chaos was caused when a momentary dip in power on the National Grid meant the back-up generator at the hospital disconnected itself from the network. The generator then failed to kick in leaving the hospital in darkness.

Engineers had to be called to reconnect the system to the grid, while hospital staff were forced to buy batteries from a local DIY superstore for emergency torches.

Vital scanning equipment was rendered useless and operations interrupted as staff reported "major problems" in wards housing seriously ill patients.

Patients on ventilators had to be "manually bagged" - helped to breath by hand - while computers monitoring blood results, pumps for administrating fluids to patients and fridges containing blood tests were shut down during the cut.

Lifts also jammed, sparking fears a seriously ill patients could have been trapped inside.

Brian Cavanagh, chairman of NHS Lothian said today: "This was an intolerable situation. We have a duty of care to our patients and staff and anything that breeches that is totally unacceptable.

"In view of the seriousness of this situation, we are demanding an immediate meeting with Consort Healthcare, our PFI partners who are responsible for the fabric and maintenance of the hospital.

"We want absolute assurances that this problem with the generators will be sorted out once and for all - this is not the first time they have failed to work properly - and that this situation will not arise again."

A nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit described the "anxious" feeling that spread throughout staff at the Little France site during the power failure, which started at around 3.15pm.

The source said: "A lot of our equipment isn’t working, so obviously you’re not in the position to monitor patients as you’d like.

"It’s quite a nightmare and potentially quite dangerous."

The source said that the failure caused "major problems" - particularly in the wards which house many acutely ill patients.

The nurse said: "People couldn’t access blood results from the computers, some of the equipment had not been properly charged, so monitors and pumps for giving fluids were not working.

"It was quite a dangerous situation."

Tom Waterson, Unison branch secretary, said members had reported a host of problems. Mr Waterson: "There were no emergency lighting in the stair wells, it was pitch black.

"Access doors where you needed passes to get through jammed shut - so God forbid if there was a fire.

"Although there were a lot of torches on site, there were no batteries, though later some appeared in B&Q bags.

"Staff coped very well given the circumstances, but it was touch-and-go for a while."

Within an hour of power being restored at the hospital, Mr Chisholm demanded that NHS Lothian provided him with a report on the incident.

He said: "I was extremely concerned to hear about this incident at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. Patient safety was obviously paramount and I commend all the efforts of the staff in caring for their patients in what must have been a very stressful period.

"But this was a very serious failure. I want a report from NHS Lothian about this incident as a matter of urgency to see what lessons need to be learned."

Mr Chisholm’s call for an inquiry was backed by Mr Waterson, but the union leader added: "We need ministers to go further than that and have an inquiry into the whole way the new ERI was financed in the first place."

A spokeswoman for the ERI confirmed that three generators, which power the entire hospital, had failed.

She refused to confirm whether operations at the hospital had to be cancelled, but said: "I can confirm that no patient was compromised in theatre."

The spokeswoman added that some areas of the hospital were left in darkness during the power cut while three accident and emergency casualties had to be taken by taxi to the Western General Hospital’s minor injuries clinic.

A statement issued by the hospital earlier said: "The supply, which was off for an hour, was restored by Scottish Power at 4.15pm.

"The hospital used battery back-up for critical areas and a team of staff worked to minimise any risk to patients."

A Scottish Power spokesman said: "Following a dip in our system the ERI’s back-up generator disconnected itself from the network.

"The generator then failed to operate. The situation was resolved when the hospitals engineers reconnected their system to the Scottish Power network."

The blackout is the latest in a series of problems at the privately-financed facility, which only opened fully in May.

In June, the Health and Safety Executive produced a damning report into conditions at the ERI after staff complained of temperatures of up to 35C.

Health chiefs finally agreed to install temporary air conditioners to the hospital last month following reports that staff were fainting from the intense heat. Workers had earlier staged a walk-out in protest over "appalling" conditions.

The HSE pledged to carry out further inspections following a probe highlighting failures including poor ventilation and access to drinking water.

In July, elderly patients were forced to dry themselves using pillow cases because staff mistakenly thought they had run out of clean towels.

And last month, ERI staff blamed new carpets laid for a series of back and leg injuries. Porters claimed carpeting laid in the hospital’s main concourse had made it difficult for them to push patients on trolleys and wheelchairs.