Healthcare Environmental Services (HES) has said it is working to “reduce the volume” of waste after reports that a huge backlog of medical and other kinds of matter had been allowed to build up.
The Environment Agency has launched a criminal investigation, and confirmed the company breached its permits at five waste disposal sites in England.
A report by Health Service Journal (HSJ) said one HES site held excess waste five times its capacity, equalling 350 tonnes including infectious fluids, amputated limbs and substances from cancer treatments.
HSJ reported that a COBRA meeting was called over the stockpiling last month, and contingency plans are understood to have been put in place for NHS trusts and other public services.
In a statement, HES said it had highlighted a “reduction in the UK’s high-temperature incineration capacity” – a problem it blamed on ageing infrastructure, prolonged breakdowns and zero waste-to-landfill policies.
The reduced capacity had been “evident across all of the industry” during the last year, it said.
The company’s website says it provides services to more than 25,000 clients, which the HSJ article says includes up to 50 NHS trusts.
Health services are not believed to be experiencing disruption to waste collection, however.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) insisted that waste was being stored safely and said there was “absolutely” no danger to patients or the public.
“We are monitoring the situation closely and have made sure that public services – including NHS trusts – have contingency plans in place,” a government spokesperson said.
“Our priority is to prevent disruption to the NHS and other vital public services and work is underway to ensure organisations can continue to dispose of their waste safely and efficiently.”
The government has said it is reviewing how contracts for waste disposal will be awarded in the future.
Previous problems between HES and the government were revealed in a letter, seen by Sky News and sent last month to NHS trusts, that said the action against the company was a “witch hunt” based on “complete lies”.
The letter, signed by the company’s managing director Garry Pettigrew, claimed there had been problems with Britain’s high temperature incineration infrastructure for years and that the Environment Agency had failed to adequately respond.
A spokesman for the Environment Agency, however, rejected the accusations. It said there was broad agreement that incinerator capacity in the UK was sufficient.
“The Environment Agency has found Healthcare Environmental Services to be in breach of its environmental permits at five sites which deal with clinical waste,” a spokesperson said.
“We are taking enforcement action against the operator, which includes clearance of the excess waste, and have launched a criminal investigation.”
John Ashworth, shadow secretary for health and social care, said the revelations were “staggering”.
“We need a statement in the Commons next week from ministers detailing when the government was first informed of this stockpiling, what support is now available to trusts and what contingency plans are in place for the future,” he said.