Labour’s dead babies
‘The death of a child is an unbearable sorrow that no parent should have to endure’ said Gordon Brown a year ago. And yet Labour’s record in providing safe services to critically ill babies is lamentable. Whatever cause the current inquiry finds for the deaths of four babies following heart surgery in Oxford, it’s patently clear that the unit simply isn’t fit for purpose. With just one dedicated paediatric cardiac surgeon (now departed) and one surgeon mixing adult and paediatric work, it beggars belief that – after the Bristol scandal – Labour could have allowed such a small unit to carry on performing such complex surgery.
This is not a new argument. Since exposing the Bristol scandal just 18 years ago, MD has argued ad nauseum that highly specialised healthcare must be concentrated in fewer units that are safely staffed and equipped. Hardly rocket science. The Kennedy Inquiry reached the same conclusion in 2001 and triggered an expert review, chaired by cardiac surgeon James Munro, which recommended that the number of child heart surgery centres be reduced to six. Labour ignored the recommendations. NHS Medical Director and cardiac surgeon Bruce Keogh realised that another disaster was imminent, and instigated a second service review last year, saying that ‘Failure to reconfigure child heart surgery will be a stain on the soul of the specialty and will compromise the treatment of the most vulnerable members of the next generation.’ (Eye 20.1.10).
This review will shortly recommend that each unit must have a minimum of four surgeons and perform at least 400 procedures a year. Oxford did less than a hundred, but at least surgeon Caner Salih realised he worked in an unsafe environment and reported the run of deaths himself before leaving for another job. Labour should have decommissioned the Oxford unit back in 2003, along with several others with only two surgeons. But that would have been politically awkward. As MD predicted in January 2004, ‘All the units will continue to provide a miraculously safe service with inadequate staffing until one cracks under the pressure… The seeds have already been sown for another Bristol, and the blame lies firmly with this cowardly government.’
Eye reader Joanne Ferguson is equally unimpressed with Labour’s failure to adequately fund neonatal care. The NHS Neonatal Taskforce was set up in February 2008, prompted by a National Audit Office report criticizing the organisation of neonatal services and staff shortages. Last November, the taskforce launched a Toolkit for High Quality Neonatal Services, describing it as ‘the best opportunity in 30 years to raise special care baby services up to the standard that babies and their families deserve.’ Alas, there is a shortfall of over 2,700 nurses and 300 supporting therapists that are needed to give premature babies one on one care. Labour has done very little to reverse this shortfall in paediatric intensive care, and labour wards are also perilously understaffed with 500 potentially preventable deaths a year still occurring in childbirth (see Eye November 2009).
Mrs Ferguson has set up a website1 linking expert recommendations that Labour hasn’t funded with harrowing stories of unsafe care. Brown may claim he wants no parents to endure what he has, but plenty still are thanks to a lack of courage from his government. And if he bumps into Mrs Ferguson on the stump, he’ll get some tough questions. Such as why, if £105 billion goes into the NHS, is she reporting the story of a premature baby lying all day in shit?