The NHS is under pressure to publish a delayed review into a bullying scandal at Matt Hancock’s local hospital that involved senior clinicians being asked to provide fingerprint samples in a “witch-hunt” for a whistleblower.
The “rapid review” into West Suffolk hospital, which Hancock had to recuse himself from because of his friendship with the boss at the trust, was ordered in January and had been due for completion in April. Its publication was put back to this month because of the coronavirus pandemic. But it is now not expected until spring.
The Doctors’ Association UK suspects the conclusions are being sat on because they make embarrassing reading for the trust’s chief executive, Steve Dunn, described by Hanock as a “brilliant leader”.
A consultant who chairs the hospital’s medical staff committee wrote to the NHS’s regional director for the east of England, Ann Radmore, last week warning that senior medics felt the hospital could not move on until the review was published.
The NHS East insists the review will be published as soon as possible, but a source confirmed this is likely to be “spring next year”.
Dunn was urged by the Royal College of Anaesthetists to end the “toxic management culture” after the Guardian revealed an unprecedented hunt for a whistleblower who had tipped off a family about a potentially botched operation.
John Warby, whose wife, Susan, died after an operation in August 2018, was sent an anonymous letter highlighting errors in her procedure. A coroner concluded this year that errors in her care had contributed to her death.
After the anonymous tipoff, staff complained of bullying by hospital managers, who demanded they provide fingerprints to identify which of them had written to Warby.
The incident, and other failings in patient safety, contributed to the hospital becoming the first ever to be relegated by Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspectors from “outstanding” to “requires improvement” in January.
Weeks before Warby’s operation, Patricia Mills, a consultant anaesthetist at the trust, had, along with a number of other colleagues, formally raised the alarm internally about patient safety over a doctor who had been seen injecting himself with drugs.
Dozens of staff had accessed Warby’s hospital records, but it was those who had expressed concern about the drug-taking doctor who were asked to provide fingerprint and handwriting samples, insiders claim.
As the same doctor was involved in Warby’s care, Mills, along with other colleagues who had complained, was immediately suspected by those investigating the leak of alerting her family to the errors.
Mills has consistently denied this. But managers demanded that she and other senior staff provide fingerprint and handwriting samples in an attempt to identify the writer of the letter.
They were told by email in August that any refusal to comply could be relevant to the investigation and “could be considered as evidence which implicates you as being involved in the writing of the letter”.
Despite this apparent warning, Dunn insisted in a letter to Hanock in January that staff had not been “threatened with disciplinary action if they chose not to” provide handwriting and fingerprint samples. He accepted that the manner in which things had been done “deeply affected” some of the staff involved and that “this could have been handled differently”. He said staff involved had received a personal written apology.
Dr Rinesh Parmar, the chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, said: “Staff fear that the publication of the report is being further delayed as it may make difficult reading for the trust’s chief executive who the health secretary has previously championed.”
He added: “The delay makes a mockery of the process which was started to investigate concerns of a witch-hunt by senior managers to identify a whistleblower. Patient safety is undoubtedly improved when staff feel able to raise concerns, a culture which promotes this is required.”
A spokeswoman for the BMA said: “Investigations need to be thorough and that can take time, but ongoing delays can have very serious effects on those under investigation and they mean that an organisation cannot move ahead and implement recommendations that may arise from the inquiry itself.”
A West Suffolk hospital spokesman said: “Of course there are discussions in the trust about the review, as you’d expect, but decisions about timing are for NHS Improvement and the Department of Health and Social Care and not something we can comment on.”
It has said it cannot discuss issues about individual members of staff and that it would be premature to comment on matters covered by the review.
A spokesperson for NHS England said: “The independent review into whistleblowing at West Suffolk NHS foundation trust is ongoing, and the findings and recommendations will be published at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Article available here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/dec/09/nhs-urged-to-publish-delayed-report-on-west-suffolk-hospital-witch-hunt-matt-hancock