The Government is being urged to provide clarity on the impact of a lightweight concrete prone to collapse on hospitals and other public buildings after schools were told to shut affected classrooms.
Experts have warned that the crisis over reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac) could extend beyond the education sector, with healthcare settings, courts and offices also potentially at risk.
Opposition parties are demanding information about the scale of Raac in other buildings, with Labour calling for an “urgent audit”.
It comes after 104 schools and colleges were told by the Department for Education to partially or fully close buildings just as pupils prepare to return after the summer holidays.
Though not confirmed, it is estimated that around 24 schools in England have been told to close entirely because of the presence of Raac, the PA news agency understands, and schools minister Nick Gibb has admitted more could be asked to shut classrooms.
Mr Gibb said that a collapse of a beam that had been considered safe over the summer sparked an urgent rethink on whether buildings with the aerated concrete could remain open.
Former home secretary and Tory MP Dame Priti Patel told the BBC the issue was “deeply concerning” and would make the start of term “quite difficult”.
But the problem could be far wider, with other buildings at risk of “sudden and catastrophic collapse” if Raac is not removed, specialists said.
Matt Byatt, president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, said that any high-rise buildings with flat roofs constructed between the late 1960s and early 1990s may contain Raac.
He said expert bodies had warned Government departments about the dangers of the material in 2018 – adding that “everyone was aware” of the problem.
“Luckily it is being dealt with now. You can’t wait for people to get hurt before making these kinds of decision,” he said.
Professor Chris Goodier, professor of construction engineering and materials at Loughborough University, said: “The scale of problem is much bigger than schools.
“It also covers much of the building stock in the country. This also includes health, defence, justice, local government, national government, and also a lot of the private sector.”
The Government is facing questions over why it did not act sooner over schools, and opposition parties are demanding information about the extent to which Raac affects other buildings.
Labour called for an “urgent audit” to identify the risk of the concrete across the public sector estate, while the Liberal Democrats said the public and NHS staff need “urgent clarity” over whether hospital wards and buildings could be forced to close.
Julian Hartley, chief executive of NHS Providers, told BBC Radio 4’s PM that hospitals affected by Raac use “props” to reinforce structures containing Raac, meaning there is mitigation in place.
Raac planks are thought to be present in 34 hospitals’ buildings in England and the Government has pledged seven of the worst affected will be replaced by 2030.
Raac is a lightweight building material used from the 1950s up to the mid-1990s, but is now assessed to be at risk of collapse.
The DfE has been considering Raac as a potential issue since late 2018 but the timing of the decision to issue guidance just days before the start of term has angered unions.
National Education Union general secretary Daniel Kebede said: “It is absolutely disgraceful, and a sign of gross Government incompetence, that a few days before the start of term 104 schools are finding out that some or all of their buildings are unsafe and cannot be used.”
Education minister Lady Diana Barran told the BBC all parents of pupils at affected schools have been told, and anyone who has not been contacted can “just go ahead as normal next week”.
The possible presence of the concrete was being assessed in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, where education is devolved.
The Welsh Government said councils and colleges have not reported any presence of Raac.