'Shocking' rise in coroner warnings over NHS patient deaths, says Labour

Haroon Siddique
There were 42 prevention of future death reports relating to issues such as lack of beds or staff shortages in 2016 compared with 30 in 2013 Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

The number of legal warnings issued by coroners over patient deaths in England attributed to NHS resourcing issues has risen by 40% in three years.

There were 42 prevention of future death reports (PFDs) relating to issues such as lack of beds, staff shortages and insufficiently trained agency staff in 2016 compared with 30 in 2013.

Coroners have a statutory duty to make reports to a person, organisation, local authority or government department or agency where the coroner believes that action should be taken to prevent future deaths.

Labour, which compiled the figures, blamed the increase on the government’s austerity policies.

The shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “This shocking rise in austerity-related deaths in the NHS shows yet again the devastating impact of Tory underfunding. Jeremy Hunt has claimed patient safety as his watchword, yet the truth is that more deaths are being blamed on a lack of resources in the NHS.

“If the government doesn’t provide the health service with the funding it needs there is a real danger that services just become unsafe for patients. Ministers must take action now and give the NHS the resources it needs to keep patients safe.”

Within the 42 PFDs relating to lack of resources, eight were specifically concerned with resourcing of mental health services, double the number from 2013. Labour said the resourcing of mental health services was of particular concern, with deaths related to issues including the lack of mental health inpatient beds or shortages of trained staff.

Among the mental health-related deaths attributed to resource issues in 2016 was that of Wendy Telfer, 44, who died after taking an overdose. The PFD to Royal Devon and Exeter NHS foundation trust said: “It is accepted that the problem of psychiatric inpatient beds is a national one, but on this occasion, had a bed been available when needed for Wendy, her death is likely to have been avoided.”

A 2017 PFD sent to the Department of Health after the death of Christopher Fairhurst in December 2016 said a shortage of GPs put patients at risk and placed unmanageable workloads upon those GPs who were in post.

A Guardian investigation published in March found that coroners in England and Wales served PFDs relating to 271 mental health patients between 2012 and 2017.

The peak month in 2016 for deaths identified by coroners as being linked to a lack of resources – whether mental health-related or otherwise – was December, with eight. The NHS is traditionally most overstretched in winter, with staff shortages and high bed occupancy rates.

Regular winter crises are a consequence of increased demand for services without a corresponding increase in funding. In four weeks in the run-up to Christmas 2016, 50 of the 152 English trusts were at the highest or second-highest level of pressure, according to a Nuffield Trust analysis commissioned by the BBC.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said every preventable death was a tragedy. He said: “When coroners recommend specific steps to prevent future tragedy we expect NHS bodies to act without delay.

“As well as making mental health services a personal priority, both the prime minister and the secretary of state have committed to a long-term plan with a sustainable multi-year settlement for the NHS, which will be agreed with NHS leaders, clinicians and health experts.”