Clinical waste firm stripped of NHS contracts

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The UK’s medical waste backlog will be aggravated by the decision to strip a clinical waste disposal firm of NHS contracts, the company has said.

Some of the contracts held by Healthcare Environment Services (HES) were terminated after it was alleged that it had allowed body parts to pile up at its facilities.

NHS Improvement said HES had “failed to demonstrate that they were operating within their contractual limits”.

Health Minister Stephen Barclay, in a response to a question from shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth in the Commons, revealed that 1.1% of the reported 350 tonnes of waste was “anatomical”.

And Mr Barclay told MPs that 15 NHS trusts had served termination notices to HES, with the work being taken over by Mitie.

But in a statement HES said the decision would “aggravate” the UK’s medical waste backlog.

The decision to end the contracts could lead to waste disposal standards being compromised with potential risk to public health, it added.

And it denied that body parts were “stockpiled” at any of its sites, saying most of the waste backlog is plastic.

Managing director Garry Pettigrew said: “Our plants around the UK are continuing to store and process medical waste safely and securely to clear any backlog.

“As we have stressed since the outset, there is a proven lack of incineration capacity within the UK, which is affecting all operators.

“The decision of 15 NHS Trusts to serve us termination notices is excessive and counter-productive and will only cause further issues.

“We are currently discussing next steps with our legal advisers.

“What we have been asking for since January this year is a dispensation to continue the safe storage of medical waste above the agreed limit to enable us to safely dispose of this as quickly as possible.

“We have more than enough capacity to do this and, as the UK Government and the Environment Agency have already noted, there is no risk to public health, as all waste is contained and processed within licensed facilities.

“The irony is that today’s decision means that other operators will be given relaxed dispensations to dispose of hazardous waste and that hospitals will also be forced to store waste on site, potentially risking public health.”

HES added that anatomical waste contributes to less than 1% of overall waste it collects and it is disposed of as a priority.

Mr Pettigrew continued: “All anatomical waste is disposed of safely and there are no body parts ‘stockpiled’ at any of our sites, as some reports have alleged.

“The majority of the waste we are talking about here is plastic.”

In a statement to Parliament, Mr Barclay said the Government was first aware of concerns in July.

He said that following the Environment Agency’s issuing of a partial closure to HES’s Normanton site, NHS Improvement issued a letter to HES and gave the firm 48 hours to provide evidence that they “were operating within legal and contractual parameters and set out a number of threshold levels”.

He said: “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 October 7.

“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.”

That contract was “fully operational” from Monday morning, he told MPs.

Labour MP Mr Ashworth, speaking in the Commons, said: “This is an absolutely horrific scandal, a private contractor has failed in their responsibilities to a quite staggering degree, 350 tonnes of waste including human body parts, amputated limbs, infectious fluids, substances from cancer left effectively stockpiled and not safely disposed of.

“It’s an absolute scandal, how on earth did we get to this?”

Mr Barclay responded by accusing Mr Ashworth of using “inflammatory language”, adding: “I think it’s worth just reminding the House that just 1.1% of this clinical waste is anatomical, so some of the media headlines on this are slightly out of step with the reality.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said none of the firm’s contracts with NHS Scotland boards have been terminated.

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