Hunt hunts Burnham
‘Shocking revelations on @andyburnhammps attempts to cover-up failing hospitals. We’re making sure this can never happen again.’ So tweeted health secretary Jeremy Hunt about his Labour predecessor on October 4th, prompting a vociferous rebuttal and threat of legal action from Burnham. Hunt’s ‘apology’ was thus: ‘My tweet referred to revelations about political pressure on the CQC over the publication process for reports in failures of hospital care, and was not a suggestion that you personally covered up evidence of poor care.’ His tweet has remained up, despite Burnham’s insistence it be removed, and the ‘suing for defamation’ threat remains.
The Tories have targeted Burnham for a while. He’s been effective in exposing the organizational chaos that the entirely unnecessary Health and Social Act has visited on the NHS. Sir David Nicholson, chief executive of the NHS since 2006, was the one person who could have spoken up and derailed the reforms, but chose to remain silent as the bill passed and only now has declared that hospitals and GPs are being ‘held back from making changes that made perfect sense from the point of view of patients because they did not meet new rules on competition between healthcare providers’. Sadly, two years too late.
Burnham may not have personally covered up poor care but very poor care occurred on his watch as health secretary, and there were plenty of missed warning signs. However they were also ignored or went unnoticed for a very long time by clinical staff, hospital managers, trust boards, commissioners, strategic health authorities, regulators, civil servants and Sir David Nicholson and his top team. Were it not for vociferous and persistent patients and relatives, such poor care as happened in Mid Staffs, Maidstone and Basildon would still be happening (and probably is).
Burnham may shy away from having all this dredged up in court, but Hunt’s bigger gamble is his promise to end cover ups in the NHS, simply by giving the CQC legislative independence from the Department of Health. A previously incompetent regulator doesn’t miraculously become competent by being free from political interference. Indeed Andrew Lansley’s biggest selling point for the Health and Social Care Act was that the entire NHS would be free from political interference. Yet Hunt has become the most interfering health secretary of all.
Cover ups occur all the time in the NHS. Most NHS staff and politicians are in denial about the harm that healthcare does but even a well-resourced, properly-staffed service would cause harm because of the speed and complexity of modern healthcare. The NHS is understaffed and in many places frankly dangerous. Yet in such a fevered, blame-dominated political climate, the gut reaction to serious error or terrible care is to cover it up and silence anyone who tries to speak the truth.
In promising to end NHS cover ups, Hunt has bravely set himself up for an extraordinary election run in. Whistleblowers and aggrieved patients and relatives will besiege him, many of whom have already been fobbed off by the local complaints’ procedures, CQC, professional regulators and ombudsman. Parents like Steve and Yolanda Turner, who have already written to Hunt, and to the NHS Clinical Director Sir Bruce Keogh on January 5th about cover ups surrounding the death of their son Sean after heart surgery in Bristol. On March 13, Keogh responded with a promise of a formal review of Sean’s care and that of another child, Luke Jenkins. To date, this review hasn’t happened. When does a delay become a cover up? Sean died in March 2012, Luke in April 2012.
Whistleblowing surgeon Ed Jesudason has written directly to Hunt and the Public Accounts Committee about the cover up of poor care, the abuse of public money, the bullying culture and the victimization of whistleblowers in Alder Hey hospital’s general surgery and urology service (Eyes passim). The CQC have failed to get to the bottom of this so Hunt has suggested trying Monitor. Regulation has never been shown to protect patients from harm or prevent cover ups in the NHS. Hunt is naive to believe it will, but his desire to get Burnham may be overriding rational thought. If Hunt is serious about safety, he must ensure the NHS frontline is properly trained and staffed. If he wants transparency, a legal duty of candour and publication of the ‘covered up’ Risk Register for the Health and Social Care Bill is essential.