Polish gangs have been stealing alcoholic hand gel from London hospitals in a bid to fuel their drinking habits. The dozens of thefts have led to at least three deaths since 2008.
Speaking to the BBC, Polish migrant Bartlomiej told how he lost 1.5-litres of blood in a haemorrhage caused by his habit of drinking the liquid hand gel, used to ensure hygiene on hospital property.
“We lived in various places, always nearby hospitals,” he said “We were squatting, or we just illegally lived in houses or different accommodation. Those were the places we were binge drinking. It’s a really simple life.”
“You don’t have to steal it because it’s widely available – we’ve just been walking in with a plastic cup. If it was manual dispenser we just filled a half of a cup of this spirit gel and we mixed it with water, half-and-half. You don’t need to drink a lot of it to get drunk.
“I’ve lost a few of my friends, the ones who drank Ace cider and hand wash gel.”
Coroners have recorded three deaths linked to the hand gel since 2008, two who died of poisioning and a third who drowned in a canal in Paddington after visiting St Mary’s hospital.
Bartlomiej listed Charing Cross Hospital, King’s College Hospital, North Middlesex Hospital, St George’s Hospital, Lambeth Hospital and Hammersmith Hospital as among the hospitals targeted by his gang.
Freedom of Information requests have also uncovered cases at Barts Health NHS Trust, London North West Healthcare NHS Trust, Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals, Homerton Hospital, and the Royal Free Hospital.
Guy’s and St Thomas Hospital, located in central London with rooms overlooking the Thames and the Houses of Parliament recorded the highest number of incidents: 29 cases of hand gel theft in the past three years.
In some cases the thefts have been linked to violence as nurses have been threatened and assaulted.
Janice Stevens, interim chief nurse at the Royal London, said: “A nurse was assaulted when a member of the public was trying to take alcohol gel, which they were going to consume. Security was immediately called, the person was removed and the nurse was supported following the assault.
“The alcohol gel is locked and we’ve removed alcohol gel from the non-clinical areas such as outpatients, which is lower in risk of infection. Staff are aware of the importance of keeping an eye on the gel and we are just piloting an alcohol-free gel to see whether that has the same impact on the bugs. It’s there to prevent infections such as MRSA.”
Dr Sarah Jarvis, a leading GP, warned: “These alcohol gels are not made to be drunk. Therefore they will have all sorts of things added to them which will be very toxic. They can cause severe inflammation on the inside of your gut.
“This is going to be a particular problem for alcoholics because they tend to have inflammation on the stomach and they can have swollen veins inside their stomach, so they are much more prone to bleeding. You can also get alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.”
An NHS England spokeswoman said: “In the interests of patient safety, hospitals take a vigilant approach to preventing infection. Hospitals have alcohol hand wash to protect patients, the public and NHS staff, and to support high standards of cleanliness.
“We would condemn any gangs or individuals targeting hand gel for their own purposes which could put patients’ health wellbeing at risk.”
Some hospitals have begun trialling new products, including foams, non-alcoholic gels and thicker gels in an attempt to circumvent the problem. Others have removed dispensers from some public areas, or have installed lockable dispensers.