Outdated hospital layout hampered efforts to prevent Covid spread

Members of the Save the QEH group.

Members of the Save the QEH group. - Credit: Sarah Hussain

The layout of an outdated hospital hampered efforts to prevent the spread of Covid, a new report says.

Some 389 of the 1,760 patients treated for coronavirus at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn between March 2020 and February of this year became infected on its wards, while 151 of them died.

The hospital apologised to their loved ones and promised to make the findings of an investigation into their deaths public.

In the report, published on Friday, the QEH says: "The trust extends its condolences to those who lost loved ones and those who contracted Covid while in our care during the pandemic.

League of Friends shop at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn reopens

A site which has been put forward as being suitable for a new hospital is around two miles away from the current site. - Credit: QEH

"We recognise that it has been a very difficult time for relatives and friends of those who died, many of whom were sadly denied the opportunity to visit their loved ones due to the tightened visiting restrictions in place to maximise safety, and some never got to say their final goodbyes when those closest to them were approaching their end of life."

The report says the outdated hospital made it difficult to prevent the spread of the virus. 

"Ideally, we wanted to keep any patient with confirmed or suspected Covid physically separate from other patients to minimise the chance of spread," it says.

"Unfortunately, QEH has a very limited number of side rooms and therefore regrettably some patients experienced numerous moves to try to minimise this exposure."

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The report adds: "Currently, only 10pc of our patients are able to be cared for in side rooms and restraints with the hospital’s physical environment posed a very significant challenge to the delivery of optimum care."

The QEH was built with an expected working life of 30 years but is still in use after more than four decades, with props holdings its roof up.

A prop holding up the roof at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

An example of one of the 131 props in place around the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn, including its kitchen and Rudham ward. - Credit: QEH

It was not included on the list of new builds announced by the government last year and now hopes it will be one of eight further hospitals given the go-ahead in a new round of funding next spring

The report says many patients were subjected to multiple moves. The hospital appointed family liaison officers to keep families informed of their loved ones' condition and set up virtual visiting.

But the report adds: "While the trust took measures in March 2021 in real-time to respond to patient and family feedback about poor communication through the introduction of a new team of family liaison officers, for many we recognise this service came too late."

The report describes how staff comforted patients whose relatives could not be allowed in to see them as the hospital battled to keep the virus at bay.

It says many felt "they had not only taken on the role of a clinician, but rather a mum, a dad, a brother, or a sister when family members were not able to be physically present in the hospital". It adds extra support was needed for staff who were experiencing "extremely high levels of anxiety".

The hospital was the first in the country to carry out a so-called duty of candour exercise. 

Alice WEbster

Alice Webster, chief nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital - Credit: QEH

Its chief nurse Alice Webster said: "It's nothing less than our patients deserve. This piece of work is the right thing to do for our patients. We have to take the learning from this. It's about making sure we offer our community the best we can.

"There's no doubt the physical environment for the organisation is a challenge. We have a smaller number of side rooms than you'd want. If you were building a new build, you'd have more."

Queen Elizabeth Hospital chief executive Caroline Shaw Picture: Sonya Duncan

Queen Elizabeth Hospital chief executive Caroline Shaw Picture: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

QEH chief executive Caroline Shaw said: "Covid brought unprecedented challenges to QEH and the wider NHS, however, there is clear learning from our response to the pandemic and from this duty of candour exercise that we are taking forward so that we can further improve the care and experience for our future patients and their families.

"This includes strengthening communication between patients, their loved ones and those delivering care, ensuring the management of infection control is everybody’s business and continuing to follow the necessary precautions to ensure everyone’s safety and prevent the spread of the virus and preventing multiple and unnecessary ward moves which during the pandemic often resulted in a poor patient experience and a breakdown in communication between the hospital, patients and their families."

More than 8,700 people have signed our Rebuild the QEH petition - you can do so here.

We're calling on the government to look again at its precarious situation, and to think of local residents and the hospital's incredible staff, who should be able to work in modern facilities.

By signing our petition, you can add your voice to the many who are calling for the aging hospital to be replaced.

The situation at other hospitals

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital says that since the start of the pandemic, 2,011 patients have received treatment for Covid-19 at NNUH and have been well enough to return home. Some 693 patients have died at NNUH within 28 days of a positive Covid test and 129 patients died after definite or probable infection while at NNUH.

The hospital says the duty of candour has taken place for those affected during the first wave and learnings from the second wave are currently being finalised.

Professor Nancy Fontaine, NNUH chief nurse and director of Infection Control, said: “It has been an unprecedented time for our infection control and hospital teams with the huge challenges brought by a highly infectious virus and asymptomatic Covid transmission.
“We are very sorry and our condolences are with all those who have lost loved ones over the course of the pandemic who contracted or potentially contracted Covid-19 whilst as an inpatient at NNUH. It is our duty to be open and transparent with our patients and their families – we are sharing our learnings and we are committed to making continual improvements.
“Alongside a hugely successful vaccination programme, we maintain robust infection prevention measures, including staff, patient and visitor testing, PPE, extra cleaning and we continue to follow national guidance to protect staff and their patients.”

A spokesman for the James Paget University Hospital said that during the year 2020/21, 90 patients died after definite or probably hospital acquired covid infection.

She said: "Our staff have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic to minimise the transmission of COVID-19 by following PHE national infection control guidelines.

"Our Trust is reviewing the details of every patient who died through probable nosocomial COVID-19 infection, and is communicating with their families and loved ones to support them, outline the lessons learned and explain what we have done to strengthen our infection control processes as a result.

"We maintain robust infection prevention measures and PPE usage, regular staff, patient and visitor testing, enhanced cleaning and we continue to follow national guidance to protect all our staff and their patients."