The most bewildering aspect of the NHS whistleblowers scandal is the apparently widespread assumption within the health service that it is better to hush something up than improve services for patients.
Time and again, health authorities have turned a blind eye – to put it mildly – to dangerous malpractice or criminal wrongdoing on the part of clinicians simply in order not to draw negative attention to themselves. Which, they fear, might cost them their funding. And, it is alleged, the fat-cat salaries taken by those at the top.
As the Telegraph reports, this comes with a price tag. Two million pounds has been spent on silencing whistleblowers, rather than being directed towards addressing the problems they have highlighted. According to many whistleblowers, this may be just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the most prominent NHS whistleblowers of recent times is Dr Peter Wilmshurst, 64, a consultant cardiologist. Over a period of 30 years he has called to account countless unscrupulous members of the medical profession, including some of the most senior figures in the NHS. Their crimes included embezzlement of charity funds, falsifying research figures, charging fees for consultants that don’t exist, and reckless surgical practices.
The NHS, he says, will happily pay £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to whistleblowers as part of a gagging order to keep them quiet. “But if you include legal fees and administration expense,” he says, “it can cost £5m to silence an innocent junior doctor and protect a guilty senior doctor. Trusts are being run by people whose first priority is to protect their department from cuts or closure, even if that means covering up malpractice. It is illogical, unreasonable, distressing and very unjust.”
According to Dr Wilmshurst, there is “serious endemic corruption” throughout the health service. When a cardiologist called Clive Handler, for example, was found guilty of embezzlement, rather than being prosecuted, he was initially offered a pay-out to “go quietly”, and only later found guilty by the GMC of using NHS research funds to subsidise his private practice (the GMC has a lower standard of proof than the criminal courts). In another case, one of the accused parties sat on the General Medical Council in judgment on his own case.
“Mid Staffs is seen as an outlier, but many Trusts could be in identical positions,” says Dr Wilmshurst. “There are lots of hospitals where even worse things happen. Some are almost unbelievable. That’s why we need whistleblowers.”
If that is the most bewildering aspect, the most shocking is the way in which the NHS has treated those who have tried to serve the public interest by drawing attention to substandard care. A particularly prominent example of this occurred in 2004. Margy Haywood, now 62, an experienced nurse, took a job at an NHS care home in Brighton.
“There were major problems,” she recalls. “The manager didn’t have a clue what going on, and was preoccupied with budgets and targets. An elderly lady with liver cancer was screaming in pain for lack of pain relief. There was urine and blood all up the curtains. Staff were eating the patients’ food while the patients went hungry.”
She secretly filmed this abuse for the BBC’s Panorama, and retaliation swiftly followed. “I was charged with 46 counts of misconduct,” she says. “After a four-year investigation, all were thrown out apart from breach of confidentiality.” Nevertheless, she was struck off.
Following two public petitions, however, Haywood was reinstated. She returned to work in 2008, and a year later was voted Nurse of the Year. “Without that support I would have been admitted under the mental health act,” she says.
“I lost my livelihood, while the people who were abusing and neglecting patients carried on with their jobs.” All of this amounts to what appears to be a serious indictment of the NHS. Although gagging orders have officially been outlawed, many whistleblowers have been so intimidated that they are afraid to take advantage of their new freedom.
Indeed, according to Kim Holt, the paediatric consultant who blew the whistle on Haringey’s NHS childrens’ services following the tragic death of Peter Connelly, or “Baby P” – who died in 2007 after months of abuse, despite being on the council’s “at risk” register – even legal professionals are unsure whether it is safe for whistleblowers to speak out. “Lawyers are still advising whistleblowers very forcefully not to break gagging orders,” she says. “We need a full inquiry into the misuse of confidentiality clauses. This is just the tip of the iceberg.” She speaks from personal experience. Following the death of Baby P in 2007, Holt went public with her concerns. She was offered £80,000, which was later raised to £120,000, in exchange for silence. “I was tempted to take the money,” she says, “but I would not have signed the gagging order since my concerns had not been addressed. You are told to raise concerns as a professional duty. But then you are paid off and silenced.
“Gagging orders have actually been illegal for a long time, but the law needs to be enforced. Over the last three years, 400 people in the NHS have been gagged, at a cost of £15 million. They are using public money to hide things rather than putting an end to malpractice.”
The NHS, which many Britons still believe to be the envy of the world, has suffered immense damage to its reputation in recent years. Not only are waiting lists spiralling out of control and patients dying unnecessarily, but such are the rewards of the gravy train that some top NHS staff appear to be actively working to keep things as they are. Without a doubt, this scandal reveals one of the ugliest faces of modern Britain.
Please sign the petition DAVID CAMERON. WE WANT JUSTICE FOR SHARMILA CHOWDHURY NHS WHISTLEBLOWER https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/david-cameron-we-want-justice-for-sharmila-chowdhury-nhs-whistleblower