NHS staff must be able to blow whistle, Health Secretary says

NHS staff must be able to blow the whistle and the health service must listen and act, Health Secretary Victoria Atkins has said.

“It cannot be right that NHS management spends millions of pounds fighting doctors who have concerns over patients’ safety,” she wrote in the Telegraph, referring to an investigation by the newspaper published this week.

“I will never put protecting reputations ahead of protecting patient safety. Every concern should be investigated, and every staff member should be free to raise them without fear of recrimination or damaging their career,” she wrote.

“That is why this government is building an NHS that encourages speaking out, protects whistleblowers, and always puts patient safety first.”

Health secretary Victoria Atkins
Health secretary Victoria Atkins (PA)

Ms Atkins said each of England’s NHS trusts now has a dedicated member of staff known as a freedom to speak up guardian, to listen to and support staff who want to report concerns.

These guardians have already handled more than 100,000 cases and more than eight in 10 staff who spoke out to give feedback said they would feel comfortable doing so again, Ms Atkins said.

She said that a national independent guardian and helpline service had also been set up.

New, standardised background checks have been brought in for NHS board members, to prevent “irresponsible leaders from covering their tracks by jumping between organisations”, she said.

A review of the whistleblowing framework announced last year is ongoing and evidence and next steps will be published in due course, she said.

She added: “I have asked my officials to look closely at these NHS whistleblower cases to identify the common themes and to consider what possible action could be taken to address the issues.

“This is to ensure a positive culture that encourages speaking out within the NHS becomes the norm, not the exception, across England.”

The Health Secretary’s comments come after the Telegraph published an investigation into the NHS’s treatment of doctors who say they were targeted after sounding the alarm.

Professor Phil Banfield, chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) council, wrote in the Telegraph that doctors who raise issues are “often met with hostility and risk losing their careers”.

A doctor from Justice For Doctors, which was set up in 2019 to support medical professionals who feel targeted because of whistleblowing, said on Thursday the group had noticed “a pattern” of doctors who raise concerns being investigated themselves.

Dr Salam Al-Sam told the Patient Safety Conference at the Royal Society of Medicine in London: “They say ‘concerns were raised against you, you are not allowed to practise until we’ve finished our internal investigation’.”