NHS 'cover-up' unacceptable, says health secretary

Joshua Titcombe Joshua Titcombe died nine days after being born at Furness General Hospital

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A cover-up by England's NHS regulatory body after a series of baby deaths at a Cumbria hospital is unacceptable, the health secretary says.

Jeremy Hunt was speaking after a review of the Care Quality Commission's (CQC) response to complaints about several deaths at Furness General Hospital.

The review has shown a senior manager may have ordered the deletion of a report critical of the CQC last year.

Mr Hunt promised there would be "no hiding place" for those responsible.

In a statement to the House of Commons, he said the CQC was already introducing a tougher inspection regime and had just appointed a chief inspector of hospitals.

Meanwhile, he said the government was introducing measures to make the NHS more transparent, including a duty of candour to compel the health service to be open and honest about mistakes.

But Mr Hunt said the attempt to cover up as described in the report was "completely unacceptable" and the truth must come out.

"There should be no anonymity, no hiding place, no opportunity to get off Scot-free for anyone at all who was responsible for this."

And he added: "What happened at Morecambe Bay is above all a terrible personal tragedy for all the families involved.

"I want to apologise on behalf of the government and the NHS for all the appalling suffering they have endured."

Case study

James Titcombe is the father of newborn Joshua, who died at Furness General Hospital in 2008.

"Shortly after Joshua was born, my wife collapsed with a very high temperature and she was given antibiotics.

"We had very serious concerns for Joshua, but we were repeatedly reassured he was OK. He was not seen by a doctor.

"He collapsed at 24 hours of age through the same infection my wife had, and he died in quite horrible circumstances nine days later.

"We wanted an investigation. We were not happy with the trust's initial investigation and we went to the ombudsman to request an investigation.

"One of the shocking things about the CQC's failures was the CQC repeatedly told the ombudsman that they were the organisation that would deal with these issues, and on that basis, the report says, the ombudsman was persuaded not to investigate Joshua's death."

In total, more than 30 families have taken legal action against Furness General Hospital relating to baby and maternal deaths and injuries from 2008.

The CQC asked consultants Grant Thornton to investigate its failure to spot the problems - Morecambe Bay NHS Trust, which ran the hospital, had been given a clean bill of health in 2010.

'Shocking'

The consultants found a year after this, with more concerns emerging, an internal review had been ordered into how the problems had gone unnoticed.

But in March 2012 it was decided the findings should not be made public as the review was so critical of the CQC. The order is said to have come from a senior manager who has not been named for data protection reasons. The individual denies the allegations.

The latest report said this "might well have constituted a deliberate cover-up".

But it also acknowledged the CQC had been hampered in its work because the trust and regional health bosses had failed to share information about the problems.

CQC chairman David Prior said the report was "shocking" and showed the regulator was "not fit for purpose".

"This is a shocking state of affairs. I am desperately sorry this has happened," he said.

But he said publication "draws a line in the sand for us".

"The report confirms our view that at a senior level the organisation was dysfunctional. The board and the senior executive team have been radically changed."

However, at a CQC meeting on Wednesday non-executive director Kay Sheldon said she had been treated in an "appalling" manner when she tried to raise the alarm about what was going on.

The trust has said that, given the continuing investigation, it would be "inappropriate to comment on individual cases".

Jeremy Hunt statement in full

But it has said there is "no denying that the trust has let women and their families down in the past" and that the new trust board is "determined to learn from it".

James Titcombe, whose nine-day old son, Joshua, died in 2008 from a treatable infection after being born in the hospital's maternity ward, said: "The report lays bare a number of extremely serious failures [that are] quite hard to believe."

The publication of Wednesday's report comes four months after a public inquiry into the failings at another hospital - Stafford - criticised the culture of the NHS as more concerned with protecting "corporate self-interest" than patient care.

'Cover-up'

Shadow health minister Jamie Reed called on ministers "to order an urgent investigation into the questions raised by this report".

"It would be indefensible for the CQC, the regulator charged with keeping our hospitals safe, to attempt a cover-up designed to mask its own failings," he said.

"My constituents who use this hospital deserve much better and the government needs to provide answers on every aspect of this serious allegation."

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, has asked the police to investigate the issue.

"It's quite clear as well that the CQC attempted to subvert the Freedom of Information Act. That's come out today as well and that means this is potentially a criminal issue and I've written to the constabulary this afternoon to ask them to open that inquiry."

It is not the first time the regulator has come under fire since its creation in 2009.

Widespread concerns prompted ministers to scrutinise the CQC's performance and recommend a raft of changes including the creation of a new hospitals chief inspector post and a ratings system.

Action against Medical Accidents chief executive Peter Walsh said the report was "a vindication of what local people affected by failings by the trust and by regulators have been saying".

"It underlines the need for a fully independent and wide-ranging inquiry into how, even in the aftermath of Mid Staffordshire, the regulatory system utterly failed to protect patients and sought to cover up," he added.

"It is vital that the new leaders of the CQC ensure it is a robust, proactive and honest regulator."

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