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January 18, 2013

Witness Statement from Dr Phil Hammond to Francis Inquiry
Filed under: Private Eye — Dr. Phil @ 10:04 am


I have been both a general practitioner and journalist for twenty years, breaking the story of the Bristol Heart Scandal in Private Eye in 1992 and giving evidence to the eventual Public Inquiry seven years later. Much of my journalistic work involves supporting and protecting NHS whistleblowers, while allowing their concerns to be made public in a way that could help protect patients from avoidable harm. One of the saddest elements about the high rates of death and brain damage for babies undergoing complex heart surgery in Bristol was that the problems were well known within the heart surgery community and regulatory authorities, and yet no-one – save for whistleblower Stephen Bolsin – saw fit to act.

Despite legislation to protect those who blow the whistle in good faith, I am not convinced that the lot of the NHS whistleblower has improved much over 20 years, nor that we have got any better at stepping in to protect patients from harm when concerns are raised. This is well documented in the recent Private Eye supplement, Shoot the Messenger. The Francis Inquiry may well find that NHS staff are now even less likely to blow the whistle, rather than more.

Staff that do blow the whistle are frequently marginalised, counter-smeared and suspended, and many subsequently agree to a modest pay off with a gagging clause to protect themselves from personal and professional ruin. The gagging clause is counter to DH guidance and technically not enforceable under PIDA, but few whistleblowers have the strength and legal resources to risk breaching it, and so their legitimate safety concerns are never made public and there is no evidence that they have been addressed.

Gagging clauses seem to occur in all walks of life for all sorts of reasons, and it may be that some are used by staff themselves to hide their own failings when they move jobs. However, the wider point remains that public money should never be used to suppress information that may be in the public interest. Gagging clauses provide management with a powerful tool to suppress stories of medical harm and cover up management wrongdoing (particularly the failure to act swiftly and appropriately when concerns are first raised).

I believe that many doctors who have previously been silenced would welcome the opportunity of openness and it might ensure action is taken on long standing safety problems. To maintain trust in the NHS, we need to explain why and how public money has been used to silence doctors. It would not harm the profession for this information to be released, and it may even improve it. In future, I would hope the CQC will assess the culture of the NHS by asking hospitals to provide evidence of how they responded to whistleblowers’ concerns, and whether the whistleblowers  were happy with that response, rather than unable to comment.