Pressure has been piled on the Health Secretary to ensure hospitals have the oxygen capacity required to help coronavirus patients suffering from the worst symptoms.
The acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Ed Davey, has written to Matt Hancock to warn of “catastrophic consequences” if oxygen is not available for those struggling to breathe as a result of contracting the deadly virus.
The party is calling for a review of the NHS infrastructure available to provide the life-saving supply after Watford General Hospital was forced to tell patients to stay away on Saturday due to a technical issue with its oxygen equipment.
West Hertfordshire NHS trust, which runs the hospital, called a critical incident and transferred patients to other hospitals in the area while tweeting to tell people not to go to A&E until further notice – even in an emergency.
NHS England last week warned hospitals about the risk to oxygen supplies due to increased demand, with oxygen therapy via ventilators and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines being used extensively to assist those struggling to breathe because of Covid-19.
In a letter seen by the PA news agency, Sir Ed, along with the Lib Dems’ Commons and Lords health spokeswomen, Munira Wilson, and Baroness Sal Brinton, warned the Secretary of State that a failure to shore-up vital oxygen infrastructure could put lives in danger.
“The critical incident at Watford General Hospital this weekend caused significant alarm for staff, patients and thousands of people across Hertfordshire who are served by the hospital,” they wrote.
“The incident lays bare underlying issues with critical infrastructure which may be replicated across multiple NHS Trusts.
“Failure to shore up such systems could have catastrophic consequences for patients.”
The Lib Dems are calling for a nationwide review of health infrastructure in a bid to “uncover any urgent upgrades for parts of the NHS estate that are critical for oxygen storage and delivery”.
The trio said more than half of the £6 billion of NHS capital infrastructure maintenance backlog was considered “high” or “significant” risk by the Department of Health and Social Care, and argued that any upgrades related to oxygen provision must be treated as a “priority” given there were more than 3,000 people admitted daily to hospital over the past week for Covid-19.
If ministers did not undertake the review, it would “risk undermining the great strides that have already been made in terms of increasing the number of ventilated intensive care unit beds”, the senior party figures warned.
Addressing the issue at a press briefing on Sunday, Mr Hancock said hospitals continued to have an “adequate” supply of oxygen as they deal with the pandemic.
“The quantity of oxygen and the supply of oxygen is something that we have been working very hard on and we have a very high degree of confidence in the supply of oxygen,” he said.