Urgent inquiry ordered into ‘witch-hunt’ at West Suffolk hospital

The Guardian Tue 28 Jan 2020       Denis Campbell and Matthew Weaver

Hospital bosses under fire for trying to find whistleblower who wrote to patient’s family

The government has ordered an urgent inquiry into the local hospital of the health secretary, Matt Hancock, after the Guardian revealed its unprecedented “witch-hunt” for a whistleblower.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has told NHS England to commission a “rapid review” of the actions of bosses at West Suffolk hospital.

They are under fire for demanding that staff give fingerprints and samples of their handwriting to help identify who wrote to a family alerting them to failings in care that contributed to a patient’s death.

Unusually, the investigation has been instigated by Edward Argar, a junior minister at the DHSC, because Hancock and another health minister, Jo Churchill, are both local MPs who have close ties to the hospital.

Argar has made clear to NHS England that the inquiry must be undertaken by independent experts, given those existing relationships.

The review could raise difficult questions about what Hancock – a professed champion of NHS whistleblowers – knew about the trust’s tactics and what he did about it. He is a staunch supporter of Steve Dunn, the hospital’s chief executive, whom he hailed as “a brilliant leader” when he was made CBE for services to health and patient safety.

Announcing the review, Argar made clear that he wanted hospital personnel to speak openly. “I want all staff to feel that they can speak up and have the confidence that anything they raise will be taken seriously,” he said.

The move comes a day before the Care Quality Commission publishes an inspection report into West Suffolk that may lead to the hospital losing its outstanding rating.

The Guardian revealed last month that the health secretary ignored concerns being raised about the hospital, including by some of its doctors.

The inquiry’s terms of reference, and the identity of those undertaking it, will be confirmed within days.

The Doctors’ Association UK, which has voiced alarm about the “toxic culture” at the trust, welcomed news of the review.

“We support all initiatives to improve patient safety and therefore welcome this rapid review commissioned by the government, which we hope will shine a light on concerns raised about decisions taken by senior managers,” said Dr Rinesh Parmar, the association’s chair.

“We hope that going forwards the dedicated staff at the trust are given all the support they need to reinstate an environment and culture of openness. Not only will this improve staff morale, it will create a palpable change that commands the confidence of the patients of West Suffolk.”

The review follows a series of Guardian revelations that have highlighted serious patient safety concerns and the “bullying” of doctors who hospital bosses believed raised the alarm.

We disclosed in December that the trust’s management had demanded that doctors provide fingerprint and handwriting samples to track down a whistleblower. The extraordinary tactics sought to identify an anonymous letter writer who alerted Jon Warby, a widower, to surgical mistakes made before his wife, Susan, died in August 2018.

An inquest into the 57-year-old’s death was opened earlier this month at Suffolk coroner’s court but has been adjourned.

The trust’s tactics, which were widely condemned as a “witch-hunt”, cost it more than £2,500, which it spent on handwriting and fingerprint experts. The trust’s medical director, Dr Nick Jenkins, sought to justify them by claiming the letter writer had tried to “weaponise a patient”.

In recent weeks the Guardian has reported how:

Doctors said they were too scared to report lapses in patient safety in case they ended up facing disciplinary action.

Medics later accused management of trying to mislead senior staff about the demand for fingerprints by claiming it was only voluntary when in their view it was “coercive”.

The trust failed to act on a potentially fatal failure to monitor vulnerable patients who were at risk of death. An IT glitch meant that patients at risk of a burst aneurysm were not followed up to see how soon they would need potentially lifesaving surgery. A senior doctor at the trust said the trust initially repeatedly refused to take any action.

Last week we revealed that a second family also received a whistleblower tipoff about serious failings in the care of a loved one who later died. Relatives of Horace Nunn were not told of suspected mistakes in his care until two months after an injury in hospital that contributed to his death in July 2016.

The hospital is in the Bury St Edmunds constituency of Jo Churchill, the DHSC parliamentary under secretary for prevention, public health and primary care. Churchill has refused to answer a series of questions posed by the Guardian covering what she knew about patient safety concerns and “bullying”, and what action, if any, she then took.

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