Flooding could become ‘major public health issue’, professionals warn

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Flooding could become a “major public health issue”, professionals who are worried that climate change will bring more waterborne damage to NHS infrastructure have warned.

Between April 2021 and March 2022, there were 176 flooding incidents at NHS sites across the UK, according to research from the not-for-profit Round Our Way.

General acute hospitals – which provide inpatient medical care, surgery and services for acute medical conditions or injuries – bore the brunt of the damage.

The worst affected regions were the east of England and London, with 63 and 52 instances of flooding respectively.

The worst affected NHS sites in the Round Our Way analysis were Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust with 30 incidents; Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust, Essex, with 27 incidents; and Barnet, Enfield and Haringey NHS Trust, London, with 14 incidents.

Alexis Percival, a manager at the Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust, said: “Flooding has undoubtedly caused damage to healthcare infrastructure and it’s highly disruptive to staff and patients.

“Our area isn’t even in the top 10 listed in the report but we’ve seen flooding make roads impassable, leading to ambulances being unable to get to patients on time, NHS keyworkers struggling to get to work and patients missing appointments.

Sheffield floods November 2019
An ambulance caught in floodwater in Sheffield in November 2019 (Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust/PA)

“Just three weeks ago floodwaters came worryingly close to Fairfields, the main Yorkshire 999 call centre. I am really concerned if we don’t tackle climate change, today’s near-misses could become tomorrow’s major disruptions to our NHS.”

Research from the University of Bristol has found that if climate change drives the average global temperature up to 3.3C above pre-industrial levels, damage from flooding in the UK could increase by more than a fifth.

The Met Office has said that key infrastructure like hospitals will be significantly more exposed to flooding in future because of climate change.

It has also recently published research predicting that extreme downpours will become four times more likely by the 2080s if greenhouse gas emissions remain high.

Dozens of NHS Trusts and ambulance services declared critical incidents last winter as they struggled to cope with the number of patients.

Professor Maggie Rae, president of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Epidemiology & Public Health Section, said: “Flooding has the potential to be a major public health issue.

“As well as the direct risks to life and health, this report is a timely reminder that flooding can knock out the infrastructure we rely on to access and deliver healthcare, such as hospitals, roads and communications.

Floodwaters just outside the Yorkshire 999 call centre at Fairfield, Doncaster
The Met Office as said hospital infrastructure, such as the 999 call centre in Sheffield, will be significantly more exposed in future because of climate change (Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust/PA)

“It is acknowledged that the NHS is already overstretched dealing with the burden of disease in our country.

“We need to ensure that flooding does not result in major incidents that will inevitably impact on people’s health and the health services.”

Round Our Way’s founder and director Roger Harding added: “Our report shows that flooding is already hitting the NHS hard.

“The Government needs to make sure this essential service is better prepared and tackle the climate change that is making extreme downpours more and more likely.

“If they fail to act, this stream of floods could become a deluge – and it will be those of us who rely on the NHS the most who will be hardest hit.”

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