A major teaching hospital built via one of the largest private finance initiatives in the NHS is undergoing remedial building works to prevent fires spreading after it was discovered that builders had not followed safety specifications.

University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire Trust is understood to have raised concerns with its PFI provider two years ago after it found that there were structural defects which would enable fire to spread around the building. Remedial works began in late 2015 and are set to miss an August 2017 deadline for completion. 

The trust told HSJ it had taken “extra steps” to ensure ”the hospital remains safe while the remedial works are undertaken”.

The hospital, built by Skanska, opened in 2006. Skanska is still involved maintaining the building and is undertaking the work to fix the defects.

The estimated annual charge for the PFI for 2017-18 was £87.4m, making it the second most expensive NHS PFI deal. The PFI is operated by Coventry and Rugby Hospitals PLC – a company set up specifically to run the contract. That firm is ultimately controlled by a subsidiary of fund management company Innisfree, and is chaired by Julie Acred, former chief executive of Derby Hospitals Foundation Trust.

HSJ understands the building’s internal walls, which are intended to stop fire spreading both vertically between floors and horizontally across them, are compromised where, for instance, cables pass through them. There are also problems with “expansion gaps”, which enable the building to cope with changes in temperature.

The trust launched an internal investigation in 2015 after it learned of potential fire safety problems. The investigation found that the structures to prevent it spreading had not been built according to specification.

HSJ understands the remedial works require beds to be closed while they are being undertaken – making it extremely difficult to fix areas such as operating theatres which cannot be closed for any length of time.

UHCW is a trauma centre and a major provider of specialist acute services.

Board papers from May reveal that chief operating officer David Eltringham met the trust’s PFI partner recently to discuss “fire stopping”.

HSJ understands that UHCW have raised concerns with the PFI company over the quality of remedial work that has been carried out, and there are ongoing disputes about whether the firm should pay out because facilities have been unavailable while the work has been going on.

Financial reports from the PFI company reveal UHCW was paid £4.6m in 2015 because of “certain defects” in the design of the hospital. Further deductions worth £137,000 were made in 2016.

The PFI company made a loss of £5.3m on a turnover of £66.2m in 2015, and another loss of £714,000 in 2016 on a turnover of £72.6m.

The firm spent £7.8m in 2016 fixing the defects. Accounts from 2016 reveal £9.5m was set aside in 2015 to cover these costs.

A credit rating report by Moody’s this month downgraded the company’s outlook from “positive” to “stable” because it would not meet an August 2017 deadline for the remedial works.

“This is because of newly discovered fire protection items that require rectification.” However the company was “adequately protected from increased expenses through the project’s contractual terms”.

The report went on: “Whilst performing remedial works, [the PFI company] identified additional fire protection items that require rectification. These new items will significantly extend the works schedule, primarily because more extensive patient decants will be required.”

The Moody’s report stated that a “small financial penalty” would be paid to UHCW if the August 2017 deadline is missed.

UHCW is one of 36 trusts identified as high risk following the Grenfell Tower disaster. Unusually, this is not due of its use of external cladding, but because of the ongoing structural issues.

A University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire Trust spokesperson said: “Firstly we can assure our patients, staff and visitors that we remain vigilant in ensuring fire safety standards are maintained at all times.

“Following a review of the fire safety separation at University Hospital in 2015, we learned of some potential issues with the infrastructure. As a result of these issues, we immediately launched an internal investigation to determine if any further steps needed to be taken to make the site safer.

“This investigation appeared to show that, in the unlikely event of a fire, the structures to prevent it spreading were not as robust as those specified in the original plan for the building.

”We have worked with our PFI provider to develop a programme of remedial works, which are in progress. Until they are completed, we have taken steps to strengthen our already robust fire safety procedures, including putting on additional patrols and increasing rubbish collections, as well as reminding all staff who work at University Hospital of our fire safety policies.

“We also alerted West Midlands Fire Service to the issue and have been working with them closely.

“These extra steps we have put in place means we can assure patients, staff and visitors that the hospital remains safe while the remedial works are undertaken.”

A Skanska spokesman said he had “nothing further to add to the trust’s statement”.