Hunt guilty of NHS neglect

by Daphne Liddle

HEALTH Secretary James Hunt last week said he would bring in legislation to criminalise “wilful neglect” of patients by doctors and nurses and that NHS trusts that were found to have deliberately covered up mistakes and poor treatment would face serious fines.

It was the first headline- grabbing response from the Con-Dem Coalition to the Francis report into the scandal of poor quality care at the Mid Staffordshire Hospital.

It is also part of the Con- Dem Coalition’s agenda to break the respect and trust that the people have for the NHS to make it easier to continue the process of dismantling and privatising the health service.

There were some members of staff at the Mid-Staffordshire who were guilty of very serious neglect and misconduct but the situation arose in a climate of not nearly enough staff and too much pressure on staff for too long, leading to corners being cut and deep demoralisation among some staff.

The bad situation was allowed to continue because of the cutting of Community Health Councils — elected and accountable to the local population and with powers to inspect hospitals regularly and demand improvements where necessary.

The new measures proposed are unlikely to improve staff morale or leave failing NHS trusts with the extra resources they need to improve staff levels.

It is more likely that the prospect of being jailed for failing to do your job properly will put many young people off of taking up careers in healthcare. And those newly qualified will be more inclined to seek work abroad.

Mistakes and bad outcomes will lead to a round of blame shifting as each individual is desperate to protect their own back at the expense of others — when healthcare workers should be working as well-coordinated teams with complete trust in each other.

The health unions spoke with one voice in proclaiming loudly that legally-binding minimum levels of staffing would do much more to guard patient safety and ensure good standards of care — as recommended by the Francis report.

The British Medical Association’s Dr Andrew Collier called the move “a headline-grabbing exercise” and warned that doctors and nurses might be less likely to speak out against colleagues if they thought they would go to jail as a result.

He said those who failed to meet certain standards needed support and help. “They don’t need this new climate of fear. They don’t need to be concerned that they may be sent to jail. What they need to do is learn from their mistakes and develop their practice.”

Dr Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing said that there are already “remedies in place” that tackle staff who are guilty of mistreating patients.

He said the RCN will never excuse those who wilfully neglect patients, “where individual clinicians are guilty then it is absolutely right that they are held to account”.

But he drew attention to the need to look into the whole system surrounding a care failing as well as the individual actions of a clinician: “Too often, frontline staff are trying to deliver care against a backdrop of intense pressure and woefully inadequate staffing levels.”

The RCN’s latest Frontline First report reinforces the call for staffing levels to be urgently addressed to safeguard patient safety: “If the Government are willing to look at introducing new legislation to protect patients, then the area they should be concentrating on is ensuring legally enforceable safe staffing levels. This measure would have the single biggest impact in improving care across the NHS.”

Christina McAnea, head of health for the public sector union Unison said: “The Government has missed another opportunity to introduce fixed, safe nurse to patient ratios. There is safety in numbers when it comes to caring for patients and this one step would bring about a revolutionary change on the wards. Recommending a ‘toolkit’ to set minimum staffing levels is fine, but what will happen if these are ignored when wards are under pressure, which is almost a daily occurrence in today’s NHS.

“It shames this Government that it has waited so long to announce that it is to recruit 3,700 more nurses — which still falls short of the 6,000 that have disappeared from the NHS since the Coalition came to power.”

Unite head of health Rachael Maskell said: “What Jeremy Hunt outlined won’t disguise the fact the public and staff can see there are not enough nurses.”