Simon Stevens, the new head of the NHS, and the health secretary Jeremy Hunt, face growing pressure to protect 1.4 million health service workers from ruining their careers and livelihoods if they raise concerns over poor care.
Six former staff have already asked the government for a public enquiry into how they came to be punished for speaking out; five of the six were recognised as whistleblowers during their employment tribunals and the medical skills of the sixth were not in question. None have returned to their jobs. The Department of Health has said that it was “absolutely clear that NHS staff who have the courage and integrity to speak out in the interest of patient safety must be protected and listened to”, but it is still considering the whistleblowers’ request: “The issues faced by historic whistleblowers are extremely complex. We have received the letter and are currently considering the issues raised carefully.”
Leading figures, including Charlotte Leslie and Anne Clwyd, joined calls for the government to review past cases and pay compensation for legal fees and lost income running to hundreds of thousands of pounds each. Such a move could mark the beginning of a flood of retrospective claims.
Ms Leslie, a Tory member of the health select committee, accused NHS directors of victimising whistleblowers; she said “The precedent that has been set is that if you raise patient-safety concerns you can lose your career and your reputation. While these historic cases are still unaddressed there will be a feeling that no one can raise concerns with any safety at all.”
Ms Clwyd, a Welsh Labour MP who co-wrote a report on the NHS complaints system last year after her husband passed away in a Cardiff hospital, argued that injustice had been done; “I would obviously support them looking at it afresh.”
Jennie Fecitt, a spokeswoman for Patients First, a group for nurses, doctors and other NHS staff who blow the whistle, called for historic cases to be reinvestigated and a judge-led inquiry set up by the government, stating that it was time for the health service to stop “shooting the messenger”.
Mr Stevens has spoken to several whistleblowers and arranged to meet the heart doctor Raj Mattu, whose victory in an employment tribunal has renewed hopes for a change of culture. Helen Donnelly, a nurse who made almost 100 complaints about the treatment of patients at Stafford Hospital, has been brought in as a senior adviser for the NHS. A new phone line has also been set up for whistleblowers.
Whilst this seems like a move in the right direction, people remain sceptical. David Drew, a paediatrician who was sacked from Walsall Manor Hospital after warning that patients were being put at risk, said that there was “political resistance” to understanding why NHS trusts do not take whistleblowers’ complaints seriously, instead pushing them towards employment tribunals.
The public administration committee published a report on the “culture of denial” that led to the Mid Staffordshire hospital crisis; the committee’s Conservative chairman Bernard Jenkin said; “Where whistleblowers have evidently raised legitimate concerns which were not being addressed and they have suffered as a consequence, these cases should be revisited.”
Mr Stevens said: “While no one can undo the past, in future the NHS needs to be much clearer about separating employment disputes from staff concerns about quality of care. NHS employers and regulators now urgently need to think about how best to do this.”
Geoffrey Bignell, Chairman & Solicitor, Just Employment Solicitors.