Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has described a cover up at the health watchdog in relation to baby deaths at a hospital run by Morecambe Bay NHS Trust as “utterly shocking”.
He also suggested that former executives responsible for the cover-up at the CQC could be stripped of their pensions.
Mr Hunt stressed that the Care Quality Commission must follow “due process” in determining what sanctions can be imposed, but said he would back the regulator “absolutely to the hilt” if it chose to take action against individuals, including some who have left the organisation.
The former chief executive of the CQC Cynthia Bower and her then deputy Jill Finney were named on Thursday as having been present during a discussion of the deletion of an internal review which criticised the regulator’s inspections of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust UHMBT), as well as media manager Anna Jefferson, who is still at the Commission.
Ms Bower and Ms Jefferson have denied being involved in a cover-up.
Concerns about the maternity unit at Furness General Hospital in Cumbria, run by UHMBT, came to light in 2008, but the CQC gave the trust a clean bill of health in 2010. In March 2011, Cumbria Police launched an investigation into a cluster of maternity deaths at the trust, including the death of Joshua Titcombe who died at just nine days old in 2008 after staff failed to spot and treat an infection.
While police are “unable to confirm the number of deaths/cases” they are examining, reports suggest that up to 16 newborns and two mothers are feared to have died between 2001 and 2012 due to poor care, and another nine infants were born with permanent brain damage. Ms Dineley’s report was intended to establish why the watchdog did not spot the problems at the hospital in its inspections.
The government is putting £40 million into reforming the Commission, to ensure that its inspections are conducted by experts and result in Ofsted-style reports which give confidence to the public about the standards at their local hospital, he said.
Asked what action should be taken against those responsible, Mr Hunt told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “These are very, very serious allegations and they should have very, very serious consequences if they are proved. I know the CQC are looking into disciplinary procedures and what can be done, what sanctions are available, whether you can have forfeiture of pensions, all those things.
“There has to be due process, but... it is totally appalling that this kind of thing should happen. It’s exactly what shouldn’t be happening in our NHS. It lets down the millions of doctors and nurses who do an amazing job day in, day out, and we have to root it out.” Asked if he would back the current CQC in taking action which was legally justified against former employees, Mr Hunt replied: “Absolutely to the hilt.”
Mr Hunt told Today: “I think it is utterly shocking what we have seen. To have these awful deaths at Morecambe Bay hospital is bad enough, and everyone is thinking about the families involved. But then for the body that is supposed to be the champion of the patient, the voice of the public, there to speak out when we have these problems, for them to have actively covered up what was going on is beyond belief.”