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Sewage stench remained after children’s ward refurbishment, inquiry told

Emma Somerville, a senior charge nurse, was giving evidence to the Scottish Hospital’s Inquiry on Wednesday.

The stench of sewage remained in a children’s cancer ward even after its multimillion-pound makeover, an inquiry has heard.

Emma Somerville, a senior charge nurse at the Schiehallion unit’s ward 2a at Glasgow’s Royal Hospital for Children, was giving evidence to the Scottish Hospitals Inquiry on Wednesday, which is looking into a series of contamination issues at what was billed as a state-of-the-art facility.

She told the inquiry that before the unit was moved out of the ward, and before its refurbishment, there had been issues with the temperature and humidity of the rooms, showers flooding into bedrooms, and the smell thought to have been from nearby sewage works.

But she said while the other issues were resolved, the smell remained present.

NHS Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Glasgow
The hospital is situated near to sewage works (Jane Barlow/PA)

She told the inquiry’s junior counsel Victoria Arnott: “I remember one father asked to speak to me about it. His daughter was in getting chemotherapy and she was very nauseated and the smell was making her nausea worse.”

The inquiry heard the estates department checked the ward, the vents and the hospital’s plant rooms but nothing could be found.

Ms Somerville said: “That was since we moved back, that was last summer. We moved back to the ward last March, so that was over the summer months.

“I haven’t had any feedback so far this year. However, certainly last year when we had moved back, it was an issue over the summer months.”

She said she has noticed the stench herself since it had been refurbished.

In her written evidence, she described it as a “sewage-like smell” which is the same you “smell outside when you park your car before walking into the hospital”.

The £840 million Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, where the children’s hospital is based, was built adjacent the Shieldhall wastewater treatment facility.

The inquiry has previously been told the unit was moved to a different ward because of the ongoing issues.

Ms Somerville said she thought the move was to last four weeks, but it went on for three-and-a-half years. During that period, the inquiry has previously been told, there had been an £11 million refurbishment.

In March 2018, she told the inquiry, contamination was found in the water and patients and families were told not to use it.

She said: “I was quite anxious because infection control were anxious. And, obviously, to have something in the water system especially when he had been having infections, I was concerned for the patients.”

Additional water testing was put in place, along with control measures, but then attention turned to the drains in May that year after a spike in infections.

“There was a concern that the amount of children with central line infections had increased,” she said.

“I hadn’t seen the volume of children affected before. So that was concerning. And also infection control and microbiology were concerned.”

The senior nurse told Ms Arnott of black sludge in a sink, with concerns raised about other sinks, including one “bubbling” in a room where they prepared intravenous medication.

Royal Hospital for Children and Young People
The inquiry is also examining delays around the opening of the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh (PA)

After that, a drain cleaning programme was introduced, the inquiry heard.

When the unit was moved to ward 6a in September 2018, the inquiry was told, there were then concerns about air quality after the fungus Cryptococcus was found on the campus in December 2019.

Mobile Hepa filters were installed, and around the same time there were reports of mould being found in the showers on the new ward as well as their seals needing to be replaced.

As a result, the unit was moved in January 2019 to another ward, the Clinical Decisions Unit, as work continued and it returned to 6a later that year.

Patients returned to ward 2a in March 2022, and Ms Somerville said the unit now has better facilities and improved ventilation systems.

Ms Somerville said she no longer has concerns about the safety of the ward.

She also told the inquiry she drinks the water on the ward, and there are precautions in place including filters on showers and taps.

The hospitals inquiry was launched in the wake of deaths linked to infections at the Queen Elizabeth hospital, including that of 10-year-old Milly Main.

It is also examining problems that led to the delay in the opening of the new Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh.

The inquiry, before Lord Brodie, continues.

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