Cover-up: the public are sickened by such cynicism
Published in The Daily Mail (February 22nd, 2013)
Julie Bailey is a heroine of our age. She is the cafe owner from Stafford who saw her elderly mother enter hospital for a routine operation and end up dead in the most dreadful and degrading circumstances imaginable.
Mrs Bailey was shocked by what she saw. So instead of resuming her quiet life, she dug into deep reserves of steely resolve and determined no one else should spend their final days with fear in their eyes, surrounded by patients abandoned, starving and screaming in pain.
This remarkable woman took on the interwoven establishments of the medical and political worlds — all those people who proclaim so loudly their adoration of the National Health Service, while complacently ignoring repeated failures of care.
Gradually, she found allies. The families of some of the 1,200 other patients who died in hideous circumstances in two hospitals run by the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust. And a few brave medical staff, so appalled by events they ignored bullying from bosses to blow the whistle.
They overcame scores of setbacks as bureaucrats, politicians and medical leaders closed ranks against them. This month it appeared they had triumphed after the £13 million Francis Inquiry published its damning findings into those shameful events in Staffordshire, saying there had been ‘failings at every level’.
Yesterday, however, Mrs Bailey was in despair again. For the Prime Minister proclaimed Sir David Nicholson — the man who at the time headed the health authority responsible for supervising standards at those two ill-fated Mid- Staffordshire hospitals — was doing ‘a good job’ as chief executive of the NHS and should not be made a ‘scapegoat’.
‘This is a total kick in the teeth,’ she told me. ‘I can’t describe how upsetting it is to hear this when we have been so patient for so long. All we want is to cure the health service and stop this ever happening again so that others do not have to suffer like our families.’
She is right to be angry, for it feels as if this appalling saga is shifting into the realms of a cover-up. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Westminster and Whitehall are closing ranks around one of their own.
Imagine the outcry if a private firm killed even one-hundredth of the number who died in such squalid circumstances in those two public sector hospitals. Or indeed, the demands for justice if 1,200 animals were abandoned to die hungry and in pain.
Instead, all that honey-laced talk of accountability in the NHS — a body that belongs to us, the people — turns out to be total tosh. Carry on as you are, folks, the boss is doing a fine job.
Politicians on all sides have united to protect the man who was a fixer for three successive governments. In doing so, they are putting their own interests above those of ordinary people betrayed by a health service supposed to be the envy of the world.
As the parent of a profoundly disabled daughter who has seen at first hand how the NHS can fail vulnerable patients and who has long campaigned for improved care, I find this circling of the wagons by the state-sector vested interests both depressing and disturbing.
For the truth is that while events at mid-Staffordshire were horrific, they were far from unique.
There has been a succession of alarming reports from charities involved with the old, the mentally-ill and the disabled revealing how the NHS, created for a different age and struggling to keep down costs, cannot cope with the needs of our ageing society.
Since the Francis Inquiry report was published we have learnt 14 other hospitals are being investigated for suspiciously high death rates and that whistleblowers who work in the NHS, far from being listened to, are routinely bullied, driven out of the system and gagged by lawyers.
We knew British cancer survival rates were woeful, but this week it emerged that British children are dying needlessly too. Mortality rates for those under 14 are among the worst in Europe; incredibly, more than one-quarter of deaths are due to ‘identifiable failure’ in care.
Given so many tragic flaws and terminal failures, followed by the Francis Inquiry report’s damning indictment of a culture focused more on bureaucracy and targets than patients, one would assume the man at the top would fall on his scalpel.
Especially since Sir David should never have been given the top NHS job in the first place having been chief executive of the strategic health authority with responsibility for the two mid-Staffordshire hospitals, where he failed to notice anything untoward.
And this is leaving aside a battery of other charges against the former Communist, such as his refusal to explain spending £6,000 on first-class tickets to Birmingham, where his wife continues to live.
Instead he remains in charge, clinging to his well-paid job despite losing the respect of patients, unions and, as showed by two online surveys, vast swathes of his medical staff.
His arrogance defies any sense of decency. So why are senior politicians standing by him, expending huge quantities of political capital and insulting families who have suffered so much already?
Insiders tell me that, yes, Nicholson is a considerable manager, central to the Coalition’s drive to cut costs amid austerity. But his inability to have detected the catastrophic events happening under his watch negates such claims — and even if it were true, others share such talents.
Far more likely is that his survival depends on the fact that he knows far too much about his various political masters and their serial incompetence over the NHS. ‘They are frightened because if he ever writes his memoirs he could do such political damage,’ said Phil Hammond, a doctor who reports for Private Eye.
The Coalition took over promising no major shake-up of the NHS, then ran into a political firestorm after unleashing a massive and poorly explained reform programme that infuriated staff, unnerved the public and panicked the Treasury.
The cat was let out the bag by Stephen Dorrell, Tory chairman of the health select committee, who confessed the Coalition owed Sir David for playing ‘a blinder’ by salvaging their inept reforms.
So in order to spare the blushes of bungling politicians, the parties in Westminster shield their powerful fixer like mafia gangsters protecting a prized consigliere.
They point to the Francis Report, which said there needed to be cultural change rather than just the singling out of a scapegoat. It was right on both counts — but a scapegoat is someone unjustly singled out for blame, which clearly does not apply to Sir David.
And once again, the shabby behaviour of the political class contributes to the ever-growing gulf between politicians and the people they profess to serve.
How hollow all their protestations of love for the NHS now sound. And as one of the key whistleblowers said to me yesterday, what hope is there to cure its deadly afflictions when the man who oversaw so many failings remains at the helm?
Remember this when you see Coalition leaders claiming to be the champions of patients’ concerns. Recent attempts to reposition themselves in this way under their latest health secretary Jeremy Hunt look absurd with this person still in post.
And remember Labour’s deafening silence over Sir David when they claim to be the only party that can be trusted to run the NHS. Their behaviour shames the legacy of its founder Aneurin Bevan.
If only those in Westminster had a sliver of the courage and dignity displayed by Julie Bailey.
Instead, our political leaders seem paralysed by fear of an over-powerful apparatchik. And — with their refusal to oust a man without shame — this noble woman has been forced to swallow another bitter pill.