BOSSES at Carlisle’s Cumberland Infirmary were kept in the dark about serious fire safety failures at the hospital, it is claimed.

The astonishing accusation – levelled at the facilities management firm Interserve and the private finance firm which owns the hospital building – is revealed in an email exchange that has been released to the News & Star under Freedom of Information laws.

The documents show how a senior hospital manager believed staff and patients have been exposed to unnecessary risk because the firm did not promptly alert them to fire-safety deficiencies.

The emails have prompted one union chief in the city to call for the issue to be investigated by a parliamentary committee.

It comes six months after we exclusively revealed that fire safety failings at the hospital, detailed in a confidential report, were so serious that experts estimated it will cost £14 million to correct them.

The latest release of information lays bare how trust officials battled for months to have the failings put right.

The hospital, opened in 2000, should have been built to stop smoke and flames spreading between wards and other parts of the building for at least 60 minutes, giving staff and patients time to escape.

But an inspection commissioned by hospital bosses revealed in December 2014 that much of the hospital failed to meet that standard.

North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust – responsible for all the hospital’s medical services – was so concerned that it trained 127 fire wardens and introduced hourly fire prevention checks.

Useless firewalls, holes and mistakes

The 92-page report on the hospital's fire safety status revealed comprehensive failings, which included: 

  • Faulty fire safety doors with gaps that would allow smoke to pour from wards to the hospital atrium
  • Wrongly labelled 30-minute fire doors used in a ward that should have had 60-minute fire doors
  • A firewall in the children’s ward which stopped above the false ceiling
  • A defective fire alarm system, which has prompted bosses to introduce hourly fire safety checks by staff
  • A wall between a stairwell and a ward which was inadequately sealed, potentially allowing smoke to spread
  • Similarly unfinished fire walls in the hospital’s sterile services department
  • A wall in the special care baby unit which – like others in the hospital – was sealed with inadequately fire-resistant expanding foam
  • Numerous gaping holes in fire walls, ensuring they would allow smoke and fire to spread through the building
  • A failure by HMC to ensure that its staff were testing the existing fire detection and alarm systems. 


Responsibility for the Infirmary building lies squarely with the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) company Health Management Carlisle (HMC) Ltd, which uses Interserve to run non-clinical services.

The expert report on the £67m hospital building said that its fire safety failures stretch back years and have had the potential to put staff and patients at “intolerable risk” if not tackled.

The newly revealed email trail suggests clearly that the PFI firms knew about the fire safety failings “long before” they made North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust aware of them.

Steve Pearson In an email to Interserve boss Steve Pearson, sent in March last year, a trust official said: “North Cumbria University Hospitals continue to operate as a hospital under immense pressure in terms of patient care requirements and have done so for many years.

“The current [fire safety improvement] works on which you are experiencing access problems are required through no fault of the trust.

“The problems have been caused by the PFI company and its agents. “It may be worth noting that both the PFI company and its agents knew of these problems long before North Cumbria University Hospitals were made aware and, as a consequence, should have had more time, if all required disclosures/declarations had been made as required.

“One can suggest that if the PFI company and its agents had started rectification works when they were originally identified then the works would have been completed by now. Patients, staff, and visitors would not have been placed at risk for such a long period of time...

“North Cumbria University Hospitals did not create this problem and it is not in [the trust’s] best interests to have a patient, staff member, or visitor at risk in the first place.”

Dave Burn Dave Burn, secretary of the Cumbria branch of the Fire Brigades Union, said: “If the allegation in this email is true – that they didn’t address these safety issues when they could have done – then that is quite alarming.

“You have to wonder how many other PFI buildings have problems such as this. We need transparency.”

Craig Johnston, Carlisle based regional official with the RMT rail workers union and a former mayor in the city, has long opposed the use of private finance to fund public services.

He said: “This just confirms all of my concerns about PFI – how the whole thing is shrouded in secrecy and how it is fundamentally flawed.

“In my opinion, PFI allowed the money lenders into the temple of the NHS.

“I accept there was a massive need for a new hospital in Carlisle, but what I don’t accept was that PFI was the only game in town.

“The whole thing should now be referred to a parliamentary select committee so that it can get to the bottom of what’s gone wrong.

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“It needs to be referred to a select committee of the House of Commons.

“That way, we can have a public examination of what has happened. The people of Carlisle deserve answers.”

Stephen Eames

Stephen Eames, chief executive at North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “The Trust has been working with our PFI partner to ensure that extensive fire prevention measures have been put in place at the Cumberland Infirmary.

“Cumbria Fire & Rescue Service lifted an enforcement notice in October 2015, acknowledging that the Trust and our PFI partner were working co-operatively to ensure that significant works have been completed.

“The Trust has carried out a comprehensive programme of fire prevention awareness training with our staff and fire wardens continue to patrol the hospital 24/7.

“The safety and welfare of our staff, patients and visitors to the hospital is our number one priority and we will continue to work alongside our PFI partner to focus on completing any remaining works.”

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Neither the trust nor its PFI partner were willing to say when the latter first became aware of the fire-safety failings.

Nor will they reveal who is paying for the fire safety remedial works. But in July last year, trust officials openly accused HMC of failing to seek planning permission for “decant” wards that would allow fire safety provision to be upgraded more quickly.

The trust itself applied for planning permission.

Speaking at the time, the trust’s then chief executive Ann Farrar said: “We... have urged our PFI partner to take urgent action but, to date, this has not happened.”