Homerton Fertility Centre’s licence suspended after incidents of frozen embryos ‘not surviving or being undetectable’

Homerton Hospital. Photograph: courtesy the Homerton

Homerton Fertility Centre has had its licence suspended until May following three separate incidents in its embryo-freezing process – all in the past year.

According to Louise Ashley, chief executive of Homerton Healthcare, the incidents “resulted in a small number of embryos either not surviving or being undetectable”.

This means an embryo stored in frozen liquid solution in a container cannot be found during later thawing.

In a statement on 8 March, Ashley said: “I would like to apologise to those affected and for the concern this may cause you even if you, your eggs, embryos or sperm are unaffected.”

The Fertility Centre’s licence was suspended was by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

No new patients can be treated at the centre, but the HFEA has made provisions for all patients currently undergoing treatment to complete their treatment, and for all eggs, embryos, and sperm to continue to be stored at the clinic.

All patients have been offered counselling at no additional cost, and those affected have been offered the option to move their treatment to another centre.

The Homerton Fertility Centre provides a range of NHS treatments and has been licensed since 1995.

On Wednesday, a discussion of the suspended licence was added as an emergency item to a Health in Hackney scrutiny committee meeting.

Committee chair Cllr Ben Hayhurst wasted no time in getting to his principal concern.

Only three minutes into the start of the meeting, he asked: “At the point when the centre became aware of the first issue, where was the risk committee and government and management structures in terms of making sure the latter two incidents didn’t happen?”

Basirat Sadiq, deputy CEO at Homerton Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, responded: “All three incidents were reported promptly to the HFEA as and when they happened.”

They were reported through the facility’s “serious incident system”, she added.

The investigation into the first two incidents have finished, with Homerton Healthcare having received the report from the first investigation.

The third investigation is to commence imminently.

Homerton Hospital’s chief executive Louise Ashley. Photograph: Homerton Hospital

Breeda McManus, chief nurse at Homerton Healthcare, said the trust is not yet prepared to share the findings of the investigations, but said “as we progress through the investigation, we should be able to provide some narrative around the findings”.

Sadiq did reveal that external clinical experts are investigating the incidents and, according to Homerton Healthcare, have not yet been able to find any “direct cause” to explain the loss or disappearance of the embryos.

Cllr Hayhurst challenged this, saying: “In terms of recovering confidence in your service, you can see the difficulty when there isn’t complete transparency of your findings.”

The committee was then told that the trust will be publishing “something that at least identifies the cause and the learning and tries to build that trust back”.

Sadiq added: “I can definitely assure you right now that our local governance processes for managing serious incidents are absolutely robust.”

The Citizen asked Homerton Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust to define “robust”, and it responded: “Robust means we follow and adhere to our policies and processes following a reported incident, including reporting to the Trust Board, and that we also ensure we act on any issues or incidents and report them immediately to the appropriate authorities.”

Representatives of the Fertility Centre confirmed that the three incidents have affected more than three patients.

However, they declined to say how many people in total have been affected, despite Cllr Hayhurst asking for more clarity.

Cllr Grace Adebayo seconded Cllr Hayhurst’s concerns and said: “Not knowing the numbers of those who have been affected is something that worries me.”

According to the BBC, “as many as 150 embryos could have been affected in incidents involving up to 45 patients”, though this has not been confirmed by the trust.

The Citizen asked the trust if there was any truth to these figures, and they said: “We are not confirming numbers at this time”.

McManus attempted to reassure councillors, saying: “We don’t feel they were errors, they were incidents.”

When asked for an explanation of the difference between “errors” and “incidents”, the trust responded: “The investigation is looking into the different types of incidents that may have occurred.”

In April 2022, the Fertility Centre had to suspend treatments because of staff shortages.

Responding to the three incidents in 2023, the centre has made operational changes to “prevent re-occurrence of such incidents”.

These changes include the requirement for staff to work in pairs, and increased security at the unit. All competencies of staff within the unit have also been rechecked.

Cllr Hayhurst said “that response begs more questions than it answers”, but McManus said it was to provide help to embryologists and in the interest of reassuring patients.

Cllr Kam Adams asked about the trust’s contingency plan should it fail to regain its licence in May.

Sadiq said it is “working on a plan B”, which it is “happy to share the findings of once finalised”.