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November 9, 2011

Medicine Balls, Private Eye, Issue 1301, November 9, 2011
Filed under: Private Eye — Dr. Phil @ 9:46 am

The Mother of All Gags?


The most keenly awaited NHS employment tribunal in years has ended in secrecy, making a mockery of the government’s commitments to transparency, accountability, patient safety and the protection of whistleblowers. Gary Walker, the former chief executive of the United Lincoln Hospitals Trust (ULHT), lost his job in February 2010 after blowing the whistle on how government targets were harming patient care.  The trust claims he was sacked for saying ‘fuck’ nine times over 2 years1.


The tribunal was important because Walker had blown the whistle both to his SHA chief executive, Barbara Hakin – now the DoH’s Director of Commissioning – and the NHS chief executive David Nicholson. The allegation that the two most senior managers in the NHS may have played a role in the destruction of Walker’s career whilst failing to address patient harm should have been dissected under oath but the NHS legal machine ensured the claim was ‘settled’ on the eve of the tribunal.


Walker is now not able to speak about the case. Ever.  Neither can any of his many witnesses who were prepared to testify about serious cases of patient harm, fiddling of figures, the bullying behaviour of the strategic health authority and a whitewash external review that only looked for bullying ‘in writing.’ Neither will any witnesses confirm or deny the existence of any gagging clause. All those who were due to testify against the trust, the SHA, the DoH, Nicholson and Hakin – and substantiate allegations of ‘third world care’ and avoidable patient harm  –  have been so effectively silenced at public cost that they are too scared to say how or why.


So MD put five specific questions to the trust. 1.What was the precise claim that Mr Walker made against the trust? 2.What was the amount of the settlement and the precise terms? 3.Did anyone have to sign a compromise agreement (‘gagging clause’) as a result of the settlement? 4.How much in total has the trust spent in legal and other fees in preparing for and settling this claim? 5.What direction did the trust receive from the DoH settling this claim and enforcing any compromise agreements?


The trust’s response? “The parties reached an amicable resolution of the differences between them and agreed not to comment further.” MD asked the same questions of the DoH and for clarification of Nicholson’s written assertion that ‘there is no evidence whatsoever of bullying or harassment of the trust by the SHA’. The DoH said: “This is a matter between the trust and the individual”.  As for patients, specific allegations made by trust staff will not now be properly scrutinised. Walker missed targets to save patients, but after he was sacked, a woman allegedly suffered severe complications when a consultant was pulled out of the theatre to operate on another patient who was going to breach the 18 week target, and an otherwise healthy patient who died following a radical prostatectomy after extra cases were added to an operating list to hit targets.


In February 2011, the Care Quality Commission failed ULHT on 12 of 16 essential quality and safety standards. Two  statutory warning notices were issued and student nurses were removed from training posts. The CQC has just declared that ULHT poses “a current risk to patients of being exposed to poor care”1. It has taken the trust “considerable time to investigate, respond to and resolve” serious incidents and “learning from these has been minimal”. In an NHS culture where even a chief executive can’t safely blow the whistle without having his career destroyed, it’s hardly surprising that no-one at Mid Staffs spoke up. The NHS needs to learn to value and support whistleblowers, and the NHS must stop using public money to suppress information in the public interest. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) made precisely this point this year, and yet the NHS appears to have responded by issuing the mother of all gags, so powerful that no-one may acknowledge its existence. PAC must now investigate how much public money has been spent silencing Walker and his colleagues, protecting Nicholson and Hakin and covering up another scandal. And who signed the cheque? It’s inconceivable the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, wouldn’t be aware of a cover up on this scale, even if he doesn’t wish to be held accountable for it.



1 Shoot the Messenger, Eye 1292