Coverage in The Guardian by Denis Campbell and Matthew Weaver:
The health secretary Matt Hancock has repeatedly failed to respond to concerns that his local hospital is bullying and intimidating senior doctors to prevent them raising serious issues of patient safety, the Guardian can reveal.
Doctors at West Suffolk hospital have complained of harassment after trust bosses demanded they give fingerprints as part of a “witch-hunt” to identify staff members who blew the whistle on potentially botched surgery.
The family of Susan Warby, who died five weeks after an operation in August 2018, was sent an anonymous letter highlighting errors in her procedure.
After conducting a serious incident investigation into her treatment, the trust threatened senior medics with possible disciplinary action if they failed to give their fingerprints and samples of their handwriting.
The trust insisted this request was not threatening but a note to staff warned that refusal to consent “could be considered as evidence which implicates you in writing the letter”.
Consultants at the hospital, in Bury St Edmunds, are so angry at the threats and what one called a “culture of bullying from the top down” that they have written to the trust’s chairwoman raising “grave concerns”. They accused the management team of denying staff the freedom to speak about their concerns over care, which has been an enshrined right for NHS staff since theMid Staffordshire scandal.
Details of the treatment of staff have been passed to Hancock. However, he has rebuffed on three occasions attempts to discuss the deep-seated problems at the trust with those who have raised concerns, including a senior clinician who was asked for fingerprints.
His refusal to engage threatens to undermine his claims to be a champion of NHS whistleblowers. Earlier this year he tweeted his determination “to end the injustice of making NHS staff choose between the job they love & speaking [to] the trust to keep patients safe”.
Dr Rinesh Parmar, chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, which campaigns to improve doctors’ working conditions, said: “These are utterly extraordinary and unprecedented behaviours from an NHS trust that fly in the face of everything learned from Mid Staffs. Threats, secrecy and a toxic culture towards dedicated NHS staff where whistleblowers are persecuted serve only to move us further away from a just culture and threaten patient safety.”
Dan Sharpstone, a consultant gastroenterologist at the hospital who is also Suffolk’s assistant coroner, suggested to the staff medical meeting that the letter-writer could have approached the family because the hospital’s procedures “don’t work”, and he was worried that “every whistleblower will now be treated like this”.
The trust’s hunt for the whistleblower comes after senior doctors expressed concern about an earlier potentially botched operation. After conducting a serious incident investigation, the trust accepted that its care of that patient was substandard.