The shameful NHS cover-ups must cease

Published by The Daily Telegraph (2nd February, 2017)

Joshua Titcombe was just nine days old when he died in 2008. His grieving parents discovered midwives repeatedly missed chances to spot and treat an infection that led to the death of their precious baby. So they fought for an investigation – and eventually, thanks to their courage and determination, the scale of one of Britain’s most distressing recent medical failures emerged.

The Morecambe Bay maternity scandal involved the deaths of 15 other babies and three mothers after what was officially dubbed a “lethal mix” of failures in a local system scarred by incompetence, denial and staff collusion. This only emerged, as so often, thanks to the heroic strength of a shattered family.

These parents faced years of denial from officials.  And now, to rub salt into the sores, it emerges that the nursing watchdog monitored them for nearly a decade and spent £240,000 on legal advice to dodge their demands for information.

Yet again we witness a callous cover-up culture that demeans our health service. Politicians promise transparency, managers produce codes of conduct, frontline staff talk of openness. But when mistakes are made and systems fail, the reaction is so often to crush complainants, silence whistleblowers and sweep concerns under the carpet. Lawyers and media advisers are summoned, lies told and documents suddenly ‘lost’.

NHS workers are often the victims too. There are countless cases of dedicated hospital staff flagging up failings only to be bullied and gagged. Typical was Raj Mattu, a cardiologist awarded £1.2m damages last year for a 12-year witch hunt waged against him after raising fears over overcrowded services in a Coventry hospital. One recent survey of 300,000 NHS staff found only one in four think whistleblowers get treated fairly by hospitals – a deeply alarming statistic.

Even worse is the appalling handling of bereaved families fighting to prevent more patients from dying needlessly. Just look at the horrific treatment of Julie Bailey, driven from her home after she fought to uncover the shameful mid-Staffordshire scandal involving hundreds of premature deaths including her mother. Or more recently with Sara Ryan, an academic who was abused, stonewalled and spied upon after confronting dreadful systemic failures that led to the drowning of her teenage son following an epileptic seizure in an Oxford hospital.

So often these are the people who raise alarms and highlight problems, not the official watchdogs marshalling armies of pen pushers to tick boxes. This is why the actions of the Nursing and Midwifery Council – the statutory regulator that turned to lawyers to redact documents – in the Titcombe case are so depressing. One report received by the family was reduced to ten readable words, others were filled with incomplete sentences. Yet this body has the gall to brag on its website about ‘transparent processes’ when nurses and midwives ‘fall short of our standards.’

Human beings make mistakes so there will be always failures in a health system – especially when hard-pressed staff are under intense pressure in overloaded hospitals. But such sorry attitudes are flip side of a public service that relies heavily on public adoration, always complaining of cuts while often failing to fix justified concerns. I have seen with my own family how managers and medics obfuscate after bad mistakes, while hearing countless sad cases from others over the years.

Politicians should stop repeating platitudes about the ‘wonderful’ NHS, which lags European standards in many critical areas from infant mortality to stroke death rates, and finally treat this sickness at heart of our troubled system. As in the airline industry and a handful of pioneering hospitals, staff should know they can raise even minor safety concerns without risking their career. And patients – especially those lethally let down – must know mistakes will be examined in the most open manner and lessons learned to stop others from suffering similar pain.

Suspicion of whistleblowers exists in other public services. Only yesterday a tribunal found police in Cleveland broke the law by spying on a whistleblower and journalists. But this culture can be fatal in the NHS, corroding services while utterly contemptuous of patients and good staff. We must cut out this cancer of cover-up before it spreads further.

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