Nurses not wearing face masks or staying two metres apart led to an outbreak of Covid-19 that shut an A&E unit after 70 staff at a hospital had to go into quarantine, an inquiry has found.
An investigation by Hillingdon hospital in north-west London has found that a nurse who had coronavirus unwittingly infected 16 others during a training session they all attended on 30 June, in what was described by a doctor as a “super-spreading event”.
The hospital, which serves Boris Johnson’s constituency, made headlines last week when it stopped accepting emergency admissions because the outbreak had led to 70 staff being off work and in isolation.
The training session has now been identified as the source of the unusually high number of staff who later fell ill or had to stay off work because they were in close contact with those infected.
Hospital sources say that not everyone who attended wore a mask or stayed two metres apart, and that social distancing broke down to a significant extent during the lunch break.
Staff at the hospital are baffled as to why the training session was allowed to go ahead, given that most medical training in the NHS is now done online to avoid people gathering.
One consultant said that holding the training session as a physical event had been “disastrous”. Ambulances were still being diverted from Hillingdon to other nearby hospitals more than a week after the policy was introduced on 7 July.
The same senior doctor said: “This training session became a super-spreading event. The sanctioning of such a large gathering of health care workers indoors seems extremely unwise and out of kilter with how the hospital has handled meetings of all kinds during Covid.
“Most meetings have been avoided since late March or moved online or kept to a minimal number of people with appropriate spacing.”
The ongoing inquiry is being undertaken by senior trust executives in tandem with officials from Public Health England (PHE), Hillingdon council’s public health team and NHS England. They have pinpointed the training session’s key role in spreading the virus.
The nurse who passed on the infection is thought to have contracted Covid-19 from a patient – a man who had recently returned from abroad – who was being treated for the disease in the hospital’s acute medical unit.
The nurse became increasingly ill during the training session and ended up being taken to the hospital’s A&E. There is no suggestion she acted inappropriately.
The 16 others she infected worked mainly alongside her in that unit or in the hospital’s A&E.
Three nurses who attended the event – held in a lecture theatre in Hillingdon’s education centre – have needed hospital treatment as a result of getting infected.
The Guardian revealed last week that Sarah Tedford, the trust’s chief executive, had emailed staff on 3 July blaming lack of mask-wearing and lack of social distancing by some of them for the outbreak. It is not clear if she was referring specifically to the training session, which was held four days earlier.
One health official with knowledge of the inquiry’s findings said: “Social distancing is very important in this pandemic, so it’s worrying to find that not done by an NHS trust. They shouldn’t be breaching any social distancing rules at the moment.
“These things [training sessions] shouldn’t be happening with current social distancing and I’m sure the trust will learn lessons from that. These situations can be avoided.”
Under hospital policy, all members of staff should wear a mask while at work, to reduce the risk of infection.
The trust declined to answer a series of detailed questions about the training session, including why it went ahead.
In a statement, it said: “There is an ongoing investigation into the outbreak of Covid-19 at Hillingdon hospital. Our priority is to maintain safe and high quality care, and the trust is taking appropriate actions to reduce transmission in line with Public Health England guidance.”