Top retired Cardiologist calls for whistle blowing to be a “routine and acceptable practice” throughout the NHS

Dr David E Ward, retired cardiologist

This is a guest blog by David E Ward, a distinguished retired cardiologist, formerly at St George’s Hospital, South London, in response to my last blog on the case of Dr Chris Day and a series of blogs on the case of Dr Usha Prasad

The treatment of bona fide whistleblowers working in the British NHS is egregious and primitive. This is amply exemplified by many publicised WB cases over the last 2 decades: Dr Raj Mattu, Dr David Drew, Dr Kevin Beatt, Mr Peter Duffy, Dr Chris Day, Dr Usha Prasad and many others (see Google). Just think for a second or two – is it appropriate to threaten the career, the livelihood, the families of these honest doctors who were only doing the “right thing” by drawing attention to what they honestly perceived were remediable shortcomings? In fact, it is required of doctors to report any perceived shortcomings (Hippocratic Oath and all that and more recently with the “Duty of Candour”).

How is it possible – in the democratic UK – to threaten a doctor with such punitive costs that they are forced to withdraw their legitimate claims or risk potential bankruptcy? Isn’t this behaviour something we might associate with some autocracies toward the east? In the case of Dr Chris Day, the sum spent on pursuing (persecuting) him must now be more than £1,000,000! All to extinguish the career of an honest doctor who sought only to improve the care of patients in his unit. Wouldn’t it have been more sensible (litotes here) to spend that huge sum of money on improvements to the unit in question? (see CrowdJustice, http://54000doctors.org/blogs/timeline).

Successive health secretaries did ” little or nothing” to help whistleblowers

Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary now chair of the Commons health and social care committee

Successive Health Secretaries have done little or nothing to support whistleblowers. Jeremy Hunt (yes, he who did so much damage to the NHS; see Caroline Molloy, http://www.openDemocracy essay) asked Sir Robert Francis QC to report on the issue (see Google) but then ignored most of his recommendations or feebly implemented some (for example, the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian which doesn’t really work, to say the least). The last SoS for Health and SC did nothing at all to support WBs to my knowledge (OK, there is a pandemic). The present one has probably never heard of any of the names listed above or even what whistleblowing within the NHS means! What is more disturbing is that other powers-that-be, for example the NHS Medical Director, the Head of the NHS (whoever that will soon be), other Ministers etc, seem to take no interest in this problem, none whatever. The Health and Social Care Select Committee could take an interest but it is chaired by Jeremy Hunt – who is too occupied with his own self-importance and whose record as SoS speaks for itself – so I don’t expect any action there. Perhaps these grandees are too far removed from day-to-day whistleblowing in the NHS. It wouldn’t take much time to find out what is happening at grass roots.

Time to create a public register of whistleblowing cases

Some tentative suggestions:

1. Create a register of WB cases. Whistleblowing investigations are almost invariably secretive. Why? Apart from clinical details what else need to be anonymised? All reported and ongoing whistleblowing cases should be logged in an open and accessible register kept by an independent (is that possible?) body, preferably independent of the Trust and possibly the NHS and its Byzantine structures. Progress of a case should be openly documented and questions may be submitted. Resolved cases would be available, uncensored, for retrospective scrutiny. Openness might deter shady deals behind closed doors (yes, they do happen). Above all the external investigators should be accountable to the Trust and their own professional organisations.

2. Make cost threats unlawful. No Hospital Trust should be permitted to use the threat of costs against a “little person” (i.e., doctor) who cannot possibly equal the financial power of the taxpayer-funded persecution to defend themselves (yes, for it is us, the taxpayer, who pays the bill for the outrageous sums mentioned above to “thwart” the WB but we have no say whatever in the process). If money is to be spent in this process it should be wisely and fairly spent and shared equally between the participants, that is the victim (the doctor) and the aggressor (the Trust).

3. Make Internal hearings demonstrably independent of both parties. All WB cases which are subject to “internal” hearings (for example Maintaining High Professional Standards panels) are vulnerable to potentially corrupt processes (as some of the above cases probably have been). They should be heard by independently appointed persons (this will require some checking because as we have seen not all so-called “independent” chair-persons are quite as independent as they may appear – see Dr Usha Prasad blogs here) and open to external scrutiny by independent authorities or suitably qualified persons. Minutes of internal hearings should be made accessible. (Employment Tribunal proceedings are already largely in the public domain).

Make falsified evidence a criminal offence

4. Make falsification of evidence by either party an offence (I think there is a name for this beginning with “P”). If defence of a whistleblowing claim by a Trust is found to be untrue or contain false or falsified “evidence”, or in some other way is dishonest (there may be some of that in some of the ongoing current cases mentioned above…) there should be appropriate retribution for the Trust and managers involved. Incidentally, it is usually managers who instigate the persecution and recruit the heavy (taxpayer-funded) lawyer-supported defence without accepting any personal responsibilities themselves. Also, the use of public money in this way could be regarded as fraudulent and a misuse of taxpayer funds.

5. Ensure the original WB claim is clearly stated. The original concern which prompted the WB to speak out should be clearly and concisely stated in language that the “man on the Clapham omnibus” (Lord Justice Greer, 1932) can understand. It should never lose its primal status. It defines the whistleblower in the first place. WB have, by definition, concerns about the environment in which they are working. They make what is termed a “protected disclosure” (Protected Disclosures Act 2014, Health Act 2004). It is remarkable that these concerns are not infrequently submerged (or completely forgotten) by the ensuing investigative process – which is often more about the Trust and its managers avenging a perceived insult by the WB than seeking solutions.

Health Trust managers use lawyers to “crush honest doctors”

Lastly, what is it that Trusts’ and their managers are so keen to defend seemingly at any cost? Very expensive lawyers are used to “crush” an honest doctor, the “little person”. A defence possibly costing much more than it would to correct the shortcomings exposed by the WB in the first place. Is it the Trusts’ or its managers’ reputations that are at stake? Would the CQC ratings be adversely affected if the Trust was found to be at fault? Are there hidden misdemeanours which might be revealed? Why do these proceedings always come across as a potential “cover-up” by the Trust? Shouldn’t the grossly disproportionate defensive stance itself raise serious questions worthy of further investigation?

It is high time the treatment of NHS whistleblowers is once again raised at the highest level (for example, in the House of Commons following the example of Sir Norman Lamb, see report above). Too many professional lives (not only doctors but nurses, physios etc) are being destroyed for no good reason. This is bad news at any time but in the middle of a pandemic it is nothing short of scandalous. Whistleblowing in the NHS is not taken seriously enough and may be a factor persuading some doctors to voluntarily leave the profession before time. In an open liberal society with everyone working for the good, “whistleblowing” should be a routine and acceptable practice. Sadly, it is cause of great distress and stigma.

BMA and ex health minister Norman Lamb back whistleblower doctor Chris Day in patient safety battle

Dr Chris Day now being backed and funded by the BMA Pic credit: Twitter

The tables are beginning to turn in a seven year battle which has cost £700,000 so far to the taxpayer between Chris Day, an anaesthetist in an intensive care unit ,employed by Lewisham and Greenwich Health Trust.

The case against the trust and Health Education England has been drawn out over seven years at employment tribunals and appeal tribunals. He was forced into a settlement in which he had to withdraw his allegations of patient safety being at risk at the ICU unit at Woolwich Hospital in return for the trust accepting he had genuine concerns as a whistleblower at Woolwich Hospital between 2013 and 2014. The trust , using expensive lawyers, threatened to land him with huge legal bills if he continued and started cross examining their witnesses. The allegations included poor staff ,patient ratios at the ICU and inadequate medical supervision. He also made the same allegations to Health England Education.

Trust forced him to settle by threatening him with huge legal bills

As he said: “After two and a half days of my six day cross examination I was contacted by my legal team and told that the NHS respondents had decided to inform me of their intention to seek costs for the entire four week hearing if I proceeded to cross examine any of the NHS’s14 witnesses and ended up losing the case,”

He had no option but to withdraw to protect his wife and family from bankruptcy should this threat be carried out.

“real prospect of success” says judge

But he has won the right to get the enforced settlement out aside and take his case to the Court of Appeal. In giving judgement the Rt Hon Lady Justice Ingrid Simler DBE stated in the Order of the Court of Appeal that “I consider this appeal has a real prospect of success. Permission is granted”. Simler LJ is a highly experienced Judge and she was previously the President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal.

Until now he was left with trying to raise money so he could afford to pay the lawyers to fight the trust. In the last week in what amounts to a major change of heart, the British Medical Association has decided to fund his battle. Internal sources say this may be the first time the BMA has decided to fund a doctor in a whistleblowing case.

A BMA spokesperson said:

“Chris’ case has brought into sharp public focus the challenges and adverse experiences which doctors can face when they make public interest disclosures to blow the whistle on safety concerns they identify, in the course of carrying out their job.

“Doctors have a responsibility to raise concerns they have about the safety of their patients and yet too often they are put in the position of having to blow the whistle on organisational failures when the organisation in question fails to act. The BMA’s own research shows a majority of doctors work in a culture of fear and are worried about recrimination if they speak out about patient safety concerns. The BMA has been calling for an open culture, where speaking out is encouraged and supported and where our NHS learns from concerns and errors, to improve safety for patients.

“The BMA carried out a comprehensive external review of its member support services and we are now making significant improvements in how we support whistleblowing cases and indeed all members who raise concerns within the NHS. This includes offering more specialised legal support given the complexity of such cases. We are grateful to Chris and other BMA members for their input to this review. Different processes would have been followed if Chris’s case was to arise today and we are pleased to be able to offer Chris the support he needs in the next stage of litigation in his case as well as in the wider interests of the profession and patient care”.

Chris Day said:

“I am pleased to announce that I will be accepting support from the BMA in the next stage of litigation in my case.

“I have always remained a member of the BMA and it is clear to me that the new leadership at the BMA is committed to supporting me and my family where it is able to do so. The Association has spent considerable time and effort understanding my situation and provided me with expert legal advice as I considered the best way forward.

“I know the BMA has undertaken a great deal of work to consider how it supports whistle-blower cases and it has sought to learn from the past. They have established new arrangements to ensure better support for potential whistle-blowers, including guaranteeing a meeting with a specialist solicitor and case manager that now takes place before any case is considered too weak to proceed or on cases that are initially considered strong enough to proceed where this view subsequently changes.

Sir Norman Lamb. Pic credit: Twitter

“I look forward to working with the BMA. The BMA has a critical role in ensuring that no doctor should ever be forced to choose between their career and the safety of their patients and I would encourage every doctor and medical student to join the BMA and take an active role in shaping their trade union. Doctors need a trade union now more than ever.”

Chris Day has also got the support of Sir Norman Lamb, the former Liberal Democrat health minister, who backed him while he was in government. Sir Norman is now the chairman of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust., the neighbouring trust to Lewisham and Greenwich. Despite some concern in the NHS establishment he is to continue to support Chris Day and will be a witness.

Given the dire findings in the Usha Prasad case with Epsom and St Helier University Health Trust, reported in this blog, this development is the best news a whistleblower doctor can get.

Nuclear industry leaders contradict each other in landmark whistleblowing case

Whisteblower Alison McDermott

Guest Blog from journalist Philip Whiteley who is covering the whistleblowing case with me

A split emerged between two leading employers in the UK nuclear industry at Leeds Employment Tribunal, in a case where they are both respondents in a whistleblowing claim, in the session on Tuesday 29 June. Representatives of the governing body the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority overwhelmingly backed the version of events put forward by the whistleblower, undermining the defence of Sellafield, the nuclear reprocessing plant.

The case is being brought by Alison McDermott, an experienced equalities professional, who is claiming her sudden termination of contract by Sellafield in October 2018 was in response to her making protected disclosures on acts of bullying at the nuclear reprocessing site in Cumbria. Sellafield’s management initially claimed that the reason for her dismissal was financial only, although at the tribunal it has produced witnesses reporting concerns over her performance.

On Tuesday three senior executives from the governing body, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, offered sharply contrasting evidence. All expressed admiration for Ms McDermott’s contribution to improving policies of equality diversion and inclusion (EDI), and all confirmed that there had been concerns over the competence of the HR director who sacked her, Heather Roberts, and the HR function at the nuclear site.

Sellafield Human Resources department ” not fit for purpose”

All said the reason they were given for Ms McDermott’s dismissal was financial. David Vineall, Group HR director at the NDA, said that Ms McDermott had been integral to the EDI ‘journey’ that the industry was embarking on. Under questioning from Ms McDermott’s barrister James Arnold, Mr Vineall conceded that the HR function at Sellafield was ‘not fit for purpose’, the words used in a damning report he had commissioned by external consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The court heard how the governing body had recommended that Ms Roberts be replaced by Mike Barber, an HR manager at the NDA. Mr Barber, one of the witnesses for the NDA on Tuesday, said he had ‘a very good working relationship with Ms McDermott’ and was ‘surprised’ to hear of her sudden dismissal.

Some of the most damning evidence undermining Sellafield’s case only came to the court’s attention in recent weeks. Mr Arnold pointed to the date of 26 April 2021 when the claimant first learned of an email from 23 October 2018, just a few days before Ms McDermott learned of her dismissal, in which Mr Vineall wrote to colleagues following a meeting with the then Sellafield CEO Paul Foster the day before, where he suggested that Ms Roberts be replaced immediately.

Nuclear Decommissioning Authority ” very nervous” about Ms McDermott’s dismissal

Just last week, the tribunal heard for the first time evidence from Ms Roberts that she had a made a note stating that the NDA was ‘very nervous’ about the timing of Ms McDermott’s dismissal so soon after her critical report.

The revelation that the respondents had hidden evidence from the claimant and the tribunal that was helpful to her case until this year is particularly significant, because there were earlier hearings in the case. There was a preliminary hearing in July 2019, and Ms McDermott had been granted a strike-out hearing, on the basis that her case was strong.

The strike-out hearing took place on 7 July 2020, some nine months before the revelation of Mr Vineall’s email, and 11 months before more evidence from Ms Roberts, also central to the case, was made available during the hearing itself. Judge Lancaster did not rebuke the respondents for this, but it potentially constitutes a breach of tribunal rules by the respondents, as well as a potential breach of whistleblowing legislation, as it potentially caused detriment to the claimant.

Had Judge Batten, sitting alone last July, been made aware of all the relevant evidence, she may have awarded a strike-out in Ms McDermott’s favour, sparing her the ordeal of a further year of litigation and a three-week full hearing.

Section 47 (A) of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, under which the case is being brought, specifically prohibits employers from imposing a detriment on a whistleblower as retaliation for raising issues of concern in the workplace.

Mr Arnold reminded the court that much of the evidence has only been made available to the tribunal as a result of the claimant’s own efforts through subject access requests and Freedom of Information requests. This would indicate a strong claim of failure to follow tribunal rules – potentially a criminal offence by the respondents – though Mr Arnold did not press the case.

Ms McDermott’s data protection rights breached by Sellafield

Sellafield already has a ruling against it in the case. In January, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that it had breached Ms McDermott’s data protection rights in the handling of three letters of evidence on which Sellafield is relying to support its case in the tribunal over her performance issues. The letters were produced on non-secure home PCs. The tribunal has permitted Sellafield to use unlawfully produced evidence.

On one of the letters, the metadata was wiped while in possession of DLA Piper, Sellafield’s law firm, temporarily hiding details on the document’s authorship and time of creation. The law firm is separately under investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority over the issue.

The case continues.