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West Suffolk Hospital whistle-blower controversy: Government orders inquiry over trust's handling of the issue

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The Government has ordered an inquiry into West Suffolk Hospital following concerns about an alleged 'witch hunt' for a whistle-blower.

The Department of Health and Social Care has told NHS England and NHS Improvement to commission a 'rapid and ​independent review' into how West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust handled the issue.

The trust has been at the centre of controversy in recent months after bosses asked for handwriting and fingerprint samples to identify who wrote a letter to the husband of a patient who died claiming there were errors in his wife's treatment.

West Suffolk Hospital
West Suffolk Hospital

During questions on health and social care in the House of Commons yesterday, Daniel Zeichner, Labour MP for Cambridge, raised the issue.

He said: "The West Suffolk Hospital has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

"I guess all members try to keep their fingers on the pulse of their local hospitals, but does not the fact that West Suffolk constituents are represented by both the secretary of state (Matt Hancock) and the under-secretary of state for health and social care, the honourable member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), show that something has gone fundamentally wrong in the scrutiny and oversight of our NHS?

I want all staff to feel that they can speak up and have the confidence that anything they raise will be taken seriously - Edward Argar, minister for health

"What has gone wrong, and what is the minister going to do about it?"

Edward Argar, minister for health, said: "I would not draw that conclusion about my right honourable and honourable friends.

"What I would say, though, is that I want all staff to feel that they can speak up and have the confidence that anything they raise will be taken seriously.

"That is why I requested on January 17 that NHS England and NHS Improvement commission a rapid and ​independent review into how the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust has handled this issue.

"I will be happy to update members, including the honourable gentleman, when that review reports."

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said the terms of reference of the inquiry 'will be set out shortly'.

Mr Hancock, MP for West Suffolk, has recused himself from the inquiry, which is being overseen by Mr Argar.

His office referred the Bury Free Press to the Department of Health and Social Care.

Matt Hancock during his visit to West Suffolk Hospital where he delivered his first speech as Health Secretary. Picture: @MattHancock (27915813)
Matt Hancock during his visit to West Suffolk Hospital where he delivered his first speech as Health Secretary. Picture: @MattHancock (27915813)

Mrs Churchill said: "I have seen first-hand the hard work and dedication of the staff at the West Suffolk Hospital, and the faith put in the hospital by my constituents to provide high quality care.

"However, where standards do fall below the expected level the hospital has a duty to launch a transparent and thorough investigation. Public safety should always be our priority and making sure that standards are always as high as they can be is imperative.

"When mistakes are made, we should learn from them, but a patient’s right to privacy should always be respected.

"As my colleague, The Minister for Health stated ‘staff should feel that they can speak up and have the confidence that anything they raise will be taken seriously.’

"I echo this view and await the outcome of the independent review into the handling of this issue, which I hope will be concluded in a timely way."

Jo Churchill
Jo Churchill

An inquest was opened and adjourned earlier this month into the death of Susan Warby, who passed away on August 30, 2018 - five weeks after undergoing two emergency surgeries for a perforated bowel.

The inquest heard that Mrs Warby's husband Jon later received an anonymous letter claiming there were errors in his wife's treatment.

The contents of the letter prompted senior coroner Nigel Parsley to ask Suffolk Police and West Suffolk Hospital to conduct investigations.

The Doctor's Association UK was reportedly approached by medics who said the hospital had asked for fingerprints and handwriting samples to identify the whistle-blower.

Following the inquest, Dr Rinesh Parmar, chairman of the Doctors’ Association UK, said: “The witch-hunt for a whistleblower following the tragic death of Mrs Warby highlights a deep-seated toxic culture at West Suffolk hospital. A culture where alleged bullying and intimidation of senior doctors is the chosen strategy by senior managers to silence whistleblowers concerned about patient safety.”

“Rather than address the widespread patient safety issues leading to Mrs Warby’s death, the senior management at the trust sought instead to divert their attention to targeting the whistleblower.

"Meanwhile the health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, who purports to champion patient safety, and in whose local hospital this is happening, has simply buried his head in the sand when approached about the matter.

“The very fact that a clinician felt it was necessary to contact the family directly in an anonymous manner is all too telling of a draconian blame culture where staff feel too afraid to speak up when things go wrong.

"There is no doubt that staff’s worst fears have been confirmed by the trust’s subsequent punitive and needlessly high-handed response.”

In a statement in last week's Bury Free Press, a hospital spokesman said: "A very serious data breach took place where confidential patient information was accessed and shared inappropriately, causing distress to a patient's family.

"We opened an investigation into that data breach, as is our duty.

"We have apologised to our staff.

"We have no intention of pursuing fingerprint requests further."

The Bury Free Press reported on the issue in December after it was covered in The Guardian newspaper detailing complaints by doctors of alleged harassment and bullying over efforts by the hospital’s trust to identify the whistle-blower.

The report said that Mr Hancock was told about the issue but failed to respond to the concerns.

At the time, Mr Hancock said: "Any allegations of bullying are taken extremely seriously and are thoroughly investigated.

"Upon being contacted about this issue, I got in touch with the hospital on my constituent’s behalf.

"The West Suffolk Hospital has shared its serious incident investigation process with the CQC, and I have been assured by the NHS that the Trust has handled this issue entirely appropriately."