The £240k health boss who sums up what’s wrong with our NHS

Published by The Daily Mail (1st September, 2016)

As the boss of a public organisation employing 9,000 staff, Katrina Percy loved to boast about her skills and her devotion to looking after community health services across a vast swathe of the country.

In one interview, published shortly after being named ‘NHS chief executive of the year’ four years ago, she said she was ‘passionate about leadership because great leaders transform lives’.

She talked of ‘empowering’ her patients — many of them elderly, profoundly disabled or suffering severe mental illness — and how she ran the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust in a ‘joined-up, cost-effective way’.

‘I go to sleep hoping the healthcare we provide is the healthcare I would want for my own family and friends,’ she added. ‘Nothing else is good enough.’

The reality could not have been more different. Months after she gave this spiel to The Guardian newspaper, a teenager with learning difficulties called Connor Sparrowhawk, who was under her team’s care, drowned in a bath.

This needless death of an 18-year-old — followed by the rightful public anger of his distraught mother — sparked a series of investigations that revealed a dismal organisation crippled by grotesque mismanagement.

Yet Ms Percy clung to her job, even after an inquiry found her health trust failed to investigate 1,259 unexplained deaths over a four-year period, then watchdogs warned that patients were still being left at risk because staff were not learning from mistakes.

She also was allowed to keep her £240,000 annual pay package after it emerged earlier this year that the trust was paying millions of pounds to consultancy firms run by her former associates.

Eventually, the dam burst. This shameless woman was forced aside from running an organisation caring for 45,000 vulnerable people in five counties.

Yet any celebrations must be muted. For still she displays callous contempt for the families who suffered due to incompetence, for the patients let down by ineptitude, for taxpayers who fund her and for the health service she professes to love.

Instead of quitting the NHS, Ms Percy is simply stepping into a lesser job, advising general practitioners — and keeping the same big salary and pension deal she had when overseeing 200 sites including hospitals, health centres and social care services.

Far from accepting responsibility for inadequate running of a trust criticised for ‘lack of leadership’ in one official report, Ms Percy sought with weary inevitability to blame ‘untenable media attention’ for her belated demotion.

Typical of so many people called to account for incompetence, she chose to blame those who, in the public interest, highlighted her failings rather than confessing to their own shortcomings.

Such smug self-righteousness ignored the fact that patients died, that sick, old and disabled people had been let down by serial disasters and that families who had put faith in a public service had been disgracefully let down.

No wonder this shabby deal was condemned by the mother of Connor Sparrowhawk, the autistic and epileptic teenager who died in Ms Percy’s health trust’s care.

His mother Sara Ryan, an Oxford University researcher, says it is ‘shocking and scandalous’ that someone should be kept on the same pay despite being moved to a lesser, ‘tin-pot’ job and having led an organisation that was ‘clearly failing at so many different levels’.

‘This just wouldn’t happen in the private sector,’ she said. ‘There are deep flaws here in the way in which the system works.’

She is right. Yet there is an even wider issue here. This shocking case does not only stain the reputation of Southern Health, which has stood beside Ms Percy for far too long. It also exposes yet again a sickness at the heart of the NHS.

It shows a state-run organisation that rewards failure and showers money on third-rate managers, while hounding out caring staff who seek to expose wrongdoing and incompetence, and strive to raise standards.

This is particularly appalling at a time when the NHS is suffering a severe cash crunch and staff shortages. It can ill afford to hand over another £1 million to Ms Percy over the next four years.

This is, sadly, par for the course with Southern. It boosted the pay bill (excluding pensions) for executive directors by almost 50 per cent over the past two years, while at the same time cutting the number of nurses, midwives and health visitors.

Tragically, this pattern of contempt for patients is widespread. Indeed, the NHS gave its two top jobs to a duo indelibly linked to a catastrophic care scandal, when hundreds of patients died in distressing circumstances in two Mid Staffordshire hospitals.

Sir David Nicholson, who was in charge of the regional health authority responsible, was promoted to chief executive of NHS England, while Cynthia Bower, who had been boss of the region’s strategic health authority, was chosen as first head of the Care Quality Commission watchdog.

Thankfully, they have now both departed. Yet there are scores more cases in this creaking public service of people being responsible for shocking failures not only failing to pay the penalty but being given lucrative posts back in the NHS.

Take, for example, Dr Keith McNeil, who resigned last autumn from his £260,000-a-year job as head of a trust running Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge after it fell into financial turmoil and was judged unsafe.

He received a secret payoff despite the trust losing £1.2 million a week. Now, ten months later, he has popped up as chief clinical information officer for NHS England on an undisclosed — but no doubt hefty — salary.

Then there is the absurd culture of paying off senior bosses only to rehire them. Last year it was revealed by the Mail that more than 5,500 people made redundant since 2010 had been re-employed, despite some receiving payments of more than £200,000.

One husband and wife couple pocketed almost £1 million in redundancy money — only to be hired again in senior NHS posts within weeks.

What a tragic contrast these cases are to those of brave (much lesser-paid) staff who dare blow the whistle when things go awry — such a key part of any sector concerned with patient safety.

It has become a mantra that staff should voice their concerns. Yet the NHS has a terrible track record of such staff being silenced, smeared and even stopped from working again in the service after seeking to protect patients.

An official review last year found a ‘climate of fear’ in the NHS in which staff who raised concerns about care were routinely bullied and victimised. It highlighted shocking accounts of how whistleblowers were treated.

So ignore self-righteous baloney of shameless NHS bosses such as Katrina Percy. The fact remains that the key reason her NHS trust was condemned for a ‘failure of leadership’ was that a bereaved parent was determined to force a public body to atone for sins, and to prevent others dying like her beloved son.

Such are the occasional failings in places of sanctuary for people with learning difficulties — such as the cheerful Connor, or my own lovely daughter Iona — that it is estimated that 1,200 die each year due to care failures.

That is why the story of Katrina Percy is so disturbing. It underscores how, when things go wrong in the health service — as has been the case far too often in recent years — the failures tend to impact on the most vulnerable patients. And sometimes there are fatal consequences.

This depressing saga of Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, which has been shamefully determined to stand by a disgraced chief executive at all costs, demonstrates how those in charge of our most precious public service too often have the wrong priorities.

It exposes a sickening culture of cover-up and self-serving impunity, in which the interests of senior staff come first — and, it seems, the interests of patients and taxpayers come a poor second.

The case of Katrina Percy shows that parts of the NHS’s bloated management are riddled with this disease. It needs to be cut out fast with surgical precision before it causes lasting damage.

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