Gosport scandal exposes blame culture in NHS, says Hunt

Matthew Weaver
Jeremy Hunt said medical staff were reluctant to raise the alarm about mistakes. Photograph: Neil Hall/PA

The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has suggested that the hundreds of deaths at Gosport War Memorial hospital could have been prevented if whistleblowers had been encouraged to come forward in the NHS.

He said the scandal exposed a blame culture across the health service that made medical staff reluctant to raise the alarm about mistakes.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The basic problem is that if you are a doctor or a nurse and you see something going wrong ... the thing that families want, if they are bereaved or have a tragedy, is to know that the NHS isn’t going to make that mistake again.

“We make it much too hard for doctors and nurses to do that. They are worried that there will be litigation, they will go up in front of the GMC [General Medical Council], or the NMC [Nursing and Midwifery Council].”

He added: “In some places they are worried they might get fired. So we do have to tackle that blame culture and turn that into a learning culture.”

A report revealed that more than 450 people had their lives shortened after being prescribed powerful painkillers at the Hampshire hospital.

Hunt’s comments follow a warning by Prof Sir Brian Jarman, head of the Dr Foster Unit at Imperial College London, that situations similar to Gosport were likely to be happening elsewhere.

He told Today: “At the moment, whistleblowers are fired, gagged and blacklisted. Nobody dare whistleblow in the NHS.”

Hunt acknowledged that Jarman was a “pioneer” who raised the alarm about high death rates ahead of the Mid Staffordshire scandal, but said he was being “a little unfair” on this occasion. He insisted that NHS culture was changing.

“I do think we are making some progress,” Hunt said. “The terrible thing about Gosport was that it was 20 years after the families first raised concerns that we were able to publish this report. I am confident that sort of time period wouldn’t happen now. We would be on the case much more quickly.”

He added: “It wasn’t just what appears to be the actions of one doctor. There was systematic failure at every level of the institutions of the British state. And so we have to learn every possible lesson.”

The Gosport inquiry, led by the former bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones, found that whistleblowers and families were ignored as they attempted to raise concerns about the administration of opioids at the hospital.

Nursing staff first raised concerns nearly 30 years ago but their fears were “silenced” by management, it revealed.

Following the release of the report, relatives of elderly patients who died at the hospital branded the findings “chilling” and called for criminal prosecutions to be brought.

Police have suggested that criminal charges could be brought following the revelations.

Hampshire’s chief constable, Olivia Pinkney, said the Gosport Independent Panel had access to information the force had not previously seen. “It is important that a process is put in place to ensure that all of the relevant agencies come together, to enable decisions about next steps to be made in a way that is well considered and transparent to all of the families,” she said.