Managers who silence whistleblowers will ‘never work in the NHS again’, Streeting vows | General Election 2024

NHS managers who silence and scapegoat whistleblowers will be banned from working in the service, the shadow health secretary has said, as part of a determined Labor Party push to root out a culture of cover-ups.

In an interview with The Guardian, Wes Streeting has pledged to push for formal regulation of NHS managers and warned the Care Quality Commission (CQC) that its inspectors must do much better at exposing risks to patient safety in order to regain the trust of frontline staff.

“I think the only way to genuinely protect whistleblowers and create a culture of honesty and openness is if there is strict enforcement of the law,” he said.

“I am very serious when I say that NHS managers who silence whistleblowers will be out and will never work in the NHS again. It is the number one priority of the system. And I want people to have the confidence to speak up and come forward.”

Just days before Streeting takes over from Victoria Atkins as health secretary, he said one of his biggest fears was uncovering more scandals involving patient safety, especially in maternity care. Investigations over the past decade into scandals involving birth care at Morecambe Bay, East Kent and Shrewsbury and Telford NHS trusts have painted a grim picture of babies and mothers who have been injured, with harm stroke or who have died after receiving inadequate care.

Further research is being carried out to examine the horrific risks faced by mothers and babies in more hospitals where preventable deaths and injuries have occurred, including in Nottingham.

Streeting said: “I am very concerned about maternity services. And what scares me is the problems we have seen raised in relation to Nottingham and Kent. I think they are a risk factor across the NHS and it is one of the main reasons why we are losing midwives faster than we can recruit them in some cases.”

Three reviews of serious patient safety failings have recommended that senior NHS managers be regulated to allow them to be disqualified if they silence whistleblowers. Streeting accused Conservative health secretaries of repeatedly failing to implement such a change.

This week, Ian Trenholm, the head of the CQC, unexpectedly resigned. In a subsequent internal memo leaked to the Health Service Journal, Kate Terroni, appointed as interim chief executive of the CQC, admitted it was failing to keep patients safe and was losing the trust of the NHS and ministers. The memo reportedly said: “The way we work is not working and we are not consistently keeping people who use services safe.”

Streeting said the instinct to protect the reputation of the NHS “at all costs” had to change.

He said: “There are doctors who are afraid to speak because they think ‘if I speak, will they expel me?’ In fact, there are many frontline staff who are trying very hard to speak out or raise the alarm about patient safety and system pressures and feel silenced, scapegoated, in some cases intimidated, and this has to stop. . .”

Senior NHS officials and whistleblowers have long argued that the regulator is not fit for purpose and inept at rooting out cover-ups. On Thursday, NHS Providers chief executive Sir Julian Hartley said the CQC memo “confirms what trust leaders have long known – the regulator is in urgent need of reform”.

Streeting said he agreed the CQC was losing the trust of concerned NHS staff and said they were pleading for a tougher inspection regime.

“When I was shadow education minister, I can’t remember a single occasion where I went into a school and the teacher said ‘what we really want is longer Ofsted inspections, more Ofsted please’,” he said. “And yet as shadow health secretary, I’ve been very surprised that frontline staff, often nurses, say that we don’t actually feel like we’re being listened to. And we don’t feel like they’ve asked the right questions and if they did, we can tell them where the patient safety challenges are.

“That’s why I think the CQC needs to make sure that inspectors ask the right questions of the right people and dig deep, especially around patient safety, so that staff have greater confidence in it.” .

Streeting said hearing the experience of Guardian senior editor Merope Mills had been a “wake-up call” as she described how she watched her 13-year-old daughter, Martha, die a preventable death from sepsis in hospital because senior doctors refused to listen to her when she raised the alarm. She said the health service should “go beyond” the Martha rule, which gives patients the right to demand a second opinion on their condition.

The British Medical Association, the main doctors’ union, welcomed Labour’s plan to regulate managers. Professor Philip Banfield, its chairman, said: “Those who run NHS organizations must, like doctors, be held to account for their actions and the decisions they have made, rather than being quietly transferred to another senior position. which is akin to an embarrassing revolving door of ineptitude.

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“As long as this culture of protectionism, rather than accountability, prevails, doctors will continue to face appalling victimization and I fear that the Pandora’s box that is about to be opened wide will be much bigger than the Post Office scandal.” .

More and more doctors were approaching the BMA “desperate to expose cover-ups, but also desperately fearful for themselves and their colleagues if they did,” he said.

James Titcombe, a patient safety campaigner whose son Joshua died in the Morecambe Bay maternity scandal, said subsequent events showed that the government’s decision in 2014 not to regulate NHS managers, against the advice of the official inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire care scandal, was a mistake.

“Too often we have seen a culture in the NHS where reputation has been put above the interests of patient safety,” he said.

Streeting said he was also determined to tackle diversity in the NHS and the harassment black staff often experience within the health service. “I look at the fact that black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth, and black men are twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than white men. And I think those issues are related,” he said.

Streeting and Keir Starmer will inherit a health service in crisis, but are optimistic they can greatly reduce waiting lists. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

He added: “Black NHS staff experience a particular challenge when it comes to harassment and I have heard it time and time again. It speaks directly to patient safety. He also talks about whether or not we are going to be successful in our ambitions to close the health inequalities that exist in our society.”

If Labour wins the election, Streeting will inherit a department with some of the toughest challenges in government: strikes; NHS funding is projected to be £38bn short by the end of the parliament; and almost 10 million people on waiting lists. Strikes will be the main focus in the short term.

“I can’t stand the thought of patients suffering further misery because of further strikes or of the NHS pouring money after money into paying the costs of strikes rather than resolving them,” he said.

Streeting said the party’s ambitions began with a promise of 40,000 more appointments a week, and repeatedly spoke of the last Labour government’s achievement in ending the wait altogether.

“The only advantage I would have, which none of my opponents have, is that I have every Labor health secretary, from Andy Burnham to Alan Milburn, in my corner on the other end of the phone,” he said. “These are people with a track record of transforming the NHS and delivering the shortest waiting times and highest patient satisfaction in the history of the NHS. “We did it before and we can do it again.”

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