The private company that ran an NHS learning disability hospital hit by revelations of staff abuse of vulnerable patients had been under scrutiny from the authorities over safety and safeguarding issues for months, it has emerged.
A catalogue of physical and emotional abuses of patients at the women-only Yew Trees unit in Essex was revealed by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) on Wednesday after an inspection triggered by CCTV footage of staff mistreating patients.
A CQC report said its inspectors had witnessed “abusive, disrespectful, intimidating, aggressive and inappropriate behaviour” by staff towards patients, including kicking, slapping and shoving, as well as failure to follow restraint guidelines.
Yew Trees’ owner, Cygnet Healthcare, also operated Whorlton Hall, a learning disability hospital closed down in May last year after a damning BBC Panorama investigation showed staff intimidating, mocking and restraining patients.
The Yew Trees revelations, the latest in a string of abuse scandals involving care of inpatients with learning disabilities, prompted campaigners to call for urgent action to meet longstanding government commitments to move patients into community settings.
“This latest shocking example of abuse again shows the dangers that these modern-day asylums pose to the 2,100 people with a learning disability and/or autism who continue to be locked away, despite government promises to transform care and support people in their communities,” said Mencap’s head of policy, Dan Storer.
The Yew Trees abuse came to light after Cygnet identified two abusive incidents on CCTV footage in July. Eight staff members were suspended and four have since been dismissed. The incidents were reported to the CQC and to Essex police, and the unit has been shut down.
Although the CQC inspection found some examples of good practice, it said staff did not report abuse or safeguarding concerns. Reasons included “a belief that managers did not take concerns seriously and did not act due to favouritism”. Some staff feared repercussion if they spoke out, it said.
In a statement, Cygnet Healthcare said the CQC’s findings were “not reflective of Cygnet as a whole”. It added: “The safety and wellbeing of the people in our care is our absolute priority, and we are appalled by the actions of this small minority of staff at Yew Trees.”
Analysis of CQC reports, however, shows that Yew Trees was issued with warnings over breaches of safety regulations more than a year ago and placed in special measures in December. A wide-ranging investigation into Cygnet Healthcare that reported in January found “serious concerns” with leadership and governance, and shortcomings in frontline care.
A routine CQC inspection carried out in January and published in April rated the facility as “inadequate” in part because of safety and quality concerns, and because it had failed to meet previous demands for improvement, although it also concluded that “staff were discreet, respectful, and responsive when caring for patients”.
The majority of Cygnet Healthcare services are NHS-funded, according to the CQC. The company had an income of about £334m in 2017, on which it made an operating profit of about £40m.
The government promised in 2015 to reduce the numbers of learning-disabled people in NHS inpatient facilities by 35-50% by 2019. It missed this target and a subsequent 2020 target and aims to reduce numbers by 50% from 2015 levels by the end of March 2024.