The “deteriorating” state of some NHS buildings could be having an impact on the supply of oxygen, health leaders have said.
NHS Providers called for “vital capital investment” to address the NHS maintenance backlog.
The request comes after health investigators launched a probe into the provision of piped oxygen gas supplies to hospitals.
The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) launched a national investigation after a hospital trust declared a major incident when demands on its oxygen supply led to patients being diverted to different hospitals and a need to transfer patients between clinical environments.
The trust had sufficient supplies of liquid oxygen available but its piped oxygen system was unable to deliver the volume of oxygen gas required to meet all patient needs, the HSIB said.
The HSIB said there has been increased demand for oxygen during the pandemic.
It warned that insufficient oxygen supply to seriously ill patients can have very severe consequences, including death.
Meanwhile BOC, the main oxygen supplier to the NHS, said in a statement on its website that it has helped with 30 “system upgrades” to increase the capabilities of oxygen delivery systems in hospitals across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland.
NHS Providers, which represents acute, ambulance, community and mental health services, called for NHS trusts to be awarded capital funding to address important maintenance work.
The organisation’s chief executive Chris Hopson said: “With the number of people being admitted into hospital with Covid-19 increasing, the need for oxygen piped to bedsides has also risen dramatically.
“The growing demand for continuous positive airways pressure (CPAP) and non-invasive ventilation (NIV) to support patients, rather than mechanical ventilation, has also placed additional demands on oxygen supply over and above the problems we saw in the first peak.
“We welcome HSIB’s investigation into the provision of piped oxygen gas supplies to hospitals.
“Trusts are doing all they can to secure and scale up capacity to deliver oxygen and are working with BOC and other experts to overcome real logistical challenges.
“Trusts have upgraded several hospital systems over the past few months to prepare, however many trusts are telling us that the deteriorating state of the NHS estate is having an impact on the supply of oxygen.
“Recent figures on the NHS estate show that the escalating backlog maintenance bill is a real problem, and so we must see trusts receive vital capital funding to carry out important maintenance work to meet growing demand and to keep people safe.”
Dr Nick Scriven, immediate past president at the Society of Acute Medicine, said: “It boils down to the amount being used being greater than the capacity of the building infrastructure to deliver.
“This is usually down to the piping in hospitals.
“In many trusts, the demand for oxygen is one of many areas that should be monitored daily during surges – we know that certain forms of respiratory support require significantly larger flows of oxygen to maintain them and these forms of support are being used more and more as the pandemic progresses as they are often delivered outside of critical care units.
“There is very little trusts can do acutely day-to-day over this but it is a reflection of our often ageing hospital buildings and the NHS’s overall lack of ‘pandemic planning’ that it is an issue, and perhaps this should really have been looked at over the relatively quiet summer months to identify where it was going to be a severe issue and any possible mitigations put in place.”
A spokesman for the NHS in England said: “The NHS has enough oxygen supplies to meet current demand and will continue to work with suppliers to manage any future needs. It is more important than ever that the public do everything possible to reduce social transmission and help reduce infection rates.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are investing record sums to upgrade and modernise our NHS buildings to build back better.
“Alongside providing funding to deliver 48 hospitals and 20 major hospital upgrades across the country, we recently announced £600 million to tackle nearly 1,800 urgent maintenance projects across 178 trusts.
“Before winter, over 30 additional upgrade projects were completed to improve the long term oxygen and medical supply systems within hospitals.”