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NHS must not 'gag' nurses who raise safety concerns, says whistleblower

Nurses and doctors being silenced on issues of patient safety by gagging contracts should be allowed to speak out freely.

That’s the view of Gary Walker, a former chief executive of United Lincolnshire NHS Trust from October 2006 to February 2010, who was dismissed after he raised concerns about patient safety.

Raising patient safety concerns should be exempt from gagging clauses, according to Mr Walker, who signed one himself in October 2011.

Today, he broke the terms of his own compromise agreement by speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and in the Daily Mail about how he was asked by the then strategic health authority chief executive Dame Barbara Hakin to “meet targets whatever demand”.

He says that the pressure to meet those targets in his three hospitals grew as the primary care trust failed to develop adequate community services, and the hospitals became “dangerously overcrowded”. As a result, he chose to focus on urgent care and let non-urgent cases wait.

His belief is that had he responded to the target-driven culture, United Lincolnshire Trust would have “passed the pressures to the front line” and could have become “another Mid Staffs”.

Since his dismissal, his trust has become one of the 14 being investigated by the government for having dangerously high levels of mortality. Something that Mr Walker told Nursing Times he felt had “vindicated” his stand.

“Robert Francis said in his report last week that staff should not be gagged, but be free to talk about patient safety openly, but the NHS has already banned these since 1998 under the Public Interest Disclosure Act. However, this law has been broken hundreds of times,” says Mr Walker.

“This is something that affects everyone in the NHS,” he says. “Nurses and doctors must all be able to speak out. The only way this culture of cover-ups and secrecy will end is if Stephen Dorrell, chair of the Health Select Committee, allows me and other whistleblowers to give evidence under parliamentary privilege.”

The Department of Health denies Mr Walker’s claims and says a “rigorous independent review” following Mr Walker’s initial concerns concluded that there was no evidence of bullying and harassment, and his allegations are “without merit”.

The DH said in a statement: “It is absolutely critical that all staff working within the NHS are able to speak up and raise concerns and that every organisation takes concerns raised seriously and acts upon them.”

Readers' comments (19)

  • I don't know anything about this case, but it all sounds scarily plausible.

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  • Take care !

    Go here and read about how NHS management conspire to rid themselves of a Whistleblower !

    Want to reveal a scandal , unsafe staffing etc ?

    Do it anonymously via the CQC

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  • So the NHS still denies bullying tactics to its staff! Sounds scarily familiar to this worker!

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  • tinkerbell

    Gary Walker, one of only a few good men who have a moral compass.

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  • Unfortunately the NHS is endemic with bullying at all levels and this in itself leads to "cover-ups" for fear of failing targets or possibility of having a poor reference if trying to move on or having the "black cloud" above one's head.
    I also, perhaps being a conspiracy theorist, a lot of this has been kept "under-wraps" to aid the eventual privatisation of the NHS with the government saying that "the NHS itself has lead itself to being in an untenable position"!! Just a thought! I have no time for bullies time to get rid!!

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  • When I complained about the bullying of a manager, I was told that if I persisted, I would be charged with bullying myself. The PIDA is useless and either needs to be enforced or rewritten.

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  • Susan Markham


    I am glad to see that the Daily Maul is beginning to join the dots and work out the real causes behind the failures at Mid Staffs (and the other 14 other trusts that are currently being investigated for abnormally high death rates.) They are finally getting their teeth into the true meat of the story by exposing the corruption that goes all the way up from senior management to ministerial level.

    Give the staff at the Daily Fail their due... they may have the collective IQ of a very small soap-dish called Bernard but once the light-bulb finally goes on they thrash away at a story like a killer shark at teatime.

    It has always amazed me that when Hospitals/Trusts fail it is the Nurses who the newspapers immediately label as the villains – not the big bosses in charge... Yet a few years ago when the big banks screwed up the press did not automatically blame the bank tellers or the local branch managers – no they laid the blame squarely where it deserved to go – at the feet of the banks' greedy “fat cat” bosses.

    Well now it seems it's the turn of the Trust bosses to be put under the same scrutiny that nurses have been subjected... and I must admit it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of idiots. Both of these links are really worth reading in full...

    The Tory charirman of the Commons Health Select Committee, Stephen Dorrell, has given immunity from litigation to Gary Walker, former CEO of the United Lincolnshire NHS trust and want hims to testify before the committee.

    Dorrell has also written to Jeremy Hunt and said: “We were concerned and disappointed to hear that Mr Walker had received a lawyers’ letter which he has interpreted as reinforcing the constraints upon him under the terms of the gagging clause in his compromise agreement.”

    In other words – “call off the hounds son!” Who knows, if justice is really going to be done perhaps Hunt will be the subject of an investigation... because that's how high (and beyond) the blame goes. It wouldn't be unprecedented. Even Dame Barbara Hakin (the ‘right-hand woman’ of NHS Chief Sir David Nicholson) is now under investigation by the GMC for quashing a probe into high death rates at his hospital in 2009.

    Let the blame go to where it is due. I doubt that many senior management heads will roll in the end but the point is that all of this publicity that the press is generating is finally educating the public that the current sorry state of the NHS wards is not entirely the fault of the nurses – the system is failing from the top-down not the other way around.

    On a side note... did you note that Gary Walker got £500,000 to keep quiet about the high mortality rates. Half a million pounds? What? And you have got to be asking yourself “is this the only guy who got paid off to keep silent?”... I doubt it. I bet there have been many before him and quite a few since.

    Think about it, do the math... if the NHS has paid off only ten other whistle-blowers over the last few years – that five million pounds of taxpayers money that was simply used to cover up deficiencies in a corrupt system. Wow! And they wonder why the NHS can't afford to employ Registered Nurses.

    I can't wait to hear the evidence that Gary Walker presents to the Commons Health Select Committee, it's going to make very interesting reading. With the potential dirt that this guy could dish, I wouldn't be surprised if Walker has some “unfortunate” fatal accident before he gets to Westminster.

    Perhaps his example (and Dorrell's promise of immunity) will encourage other 'former' Trust CEOs to come out of the woodwork and follow suit.

    In a silly way this reminds me of Watergate. That started with the arrest of five burglars and ended with the resignation of President 'Tricky Dicky' Nixon. Perhaps we should call this one “Mid-Staffsgate” (© Susan Markham 2013!)

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  • staff should not be gagged, bullied or have false allegations made against them when they raise concerns, this happens all the time.

    has the worm turned, are we now going to see support for nurses in the media?

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  • Susan Markham

    Anonymous | 15-Feb-2013 11:56 am

    Keep your fingers (and everything else) crossed... The reality may have finally started to sink into the collective thick skull of the newspapers... but don't hold your breath!

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  • michael stone

    Stephen Dorrell has more-or-less come out in support of Gary walker, and he has asked Hunt for a view on 'gagging'.

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  • Susan Markham


    Yes and I hope that Gary Walker's example will prompt many other Trust CEOs who have signed these illegal gagging orders to now come forward and spill the beans.

    Perhaps then the public might realise how corrupt the system currently is. Maybe they might even realise that Nurses are not the root cause of all the problems.

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  • looks like it is going to take years for more and more stuff to spill out before anything is actually done about it and no more patients are subjected to poor care.

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  • Susan Markham

    Anonymous | 15-Feb-2013 4:29 pm

    Yup you are probably right. I am old enough to remember the much-heralded "Sainsbury's Report" 30 years ago under Maggies reign of terror.

    That report was supposed to be the great one that was going to shake up the NHS and cure all its ills! Hmmm... 30 years later and how right did you think they got that prediction?

    The revelations will keep dribbling out over the next few years and I daresay a few high-powered bobble-heads will be thrown under the bus as sacrificial lambs but I think the biggest we can hope to see go is Sir David Nicholson.

    I want to see him be ousted not only because he is not fit to practice but because he is arrogantly refusing to resign from his post.

    Even if he goes that would only be the start of what should begin to happen to make a difference.

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  • tinkerbell

    Susan Markham | 15-Feb-2013 4:46 pm

    i want to see the top brass outed as an example to every other corrupt CE that if they can't do the right thing for the right reasons then they can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, cos they might get sent to jail if they kill any more patients.

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  • Susan Markham


    All my birthdays and Xmas's would come at once if The Rt. Hon. Germy Runt had to resign. Mind you I had the same hopes back in 1982 when Kenneth Clarke was the Minister for Health and nothing ever happened to him... :((

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  • Susan Markham

    Tinkers... see above

    Old Germy Runt may have gone one step too far!

    Ahhhhhh.... the smell of sweet satisfaction when you finally get something RIGHT...

    It seems the wall of silence/gagging is finally starting to crumble.... another two former CE's have followed Gary Walker's example and are spilling the beans to PC plod and the press!

    The second whistleblower is David Bowles, the former chairman of United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust, and Mr Walker’s former boss.

    It looks like Sir David Nicholson is going... along with his sidekick Dame Edna Everuseless... The Daily Maul Have already sacked both of them.

    Sir Dave is having his expense accounts investigated by the lads at the Met. He has spent £6,000 of public money on trips to Birmingham – where his wife lives.

    Many of the “visits” spanned long weekends, (meaning he was only working Tuesday to Thursday) prompting speculation he was using taxpayers’ money for “private” purposes. Of course it was just tax-payers money.... just a “slush-fund” for an unelected and corrupt oligarchy...

    Well wouldn't all of us Nurses just love to go away for long romantic weekends at the tax-payers expense????

    Heheheheee.... Yeah - in another universe maybe?

    In the meantime... Tory MPs are trying to distance themselves from the obvious effluent outflow ASAP.

    Two MPs have already called upon "Old Nick" to quit - and by the time you read this it will be up to double figures.

    Sir David, whose annual salary package is £270,000, insists he is ‘not ashamed’ to still be in his post because the failure were ‘system wide’ rather than individual.

    The truth is that the £270,000 is blood money....

    I've heard that even Germy Hunt's position is being debated behind closed doors...

    Of course none of this is going to effect you and I because - of course - we are the mere humble servants that are called "Nurses"... so we will continue to politely curtsey or doff our hats and accept a minimum wage - - - - - - BUT AT LEAST WE CAN HAVE A BLOODY GOOD LAUGH WHEN THE BIG HEADS ROLL AND SAY....

    We told you so!

    Then maybe the people in charge might start listening to us front-line nurses (small 'n')

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  • michael stone

    Tink, I like your new picture.

    I'm interested in whether Hunt, who has apparently told Trust CEs that they must 'foster a culture of openness and transparency' (in a letter I have yet to track down), will be supporting this same culture of disclosure at the political level, and will be applying it to the private firms who carry out work paid for by the NHS ? 'You can't get the contract, if you show evidence of non-openness' would be interesting as a rule for tendering, I think.

    It is this problem of 'hiding the problem, instead of discussing the issues out in the open', that allows things like Mid Staffs to happen. There are some plausible-looking possible solutions (I've constructed one, and sent it to Stephen Dorrell at the Health seelct Committee), but I want to see the solution, not just a description of the problem !

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  • michael stone

    Susan Markham | 15-Feb-2013 4:07 pm

    I suspect that Gary walker, is now pretty much 'safe'.

    But not all people who raise concerns, will get that level of media attention: so are the rest protected, so far ?

    I'm not sure that swearing in a meeting, presumably a meeting between similarly senior staff, is grounds for dismissal anyway: I would not condone swearing at a subordinate, but swearing in discussion with your peers is rather different (and I don't know what the swearing was, but 'You are damned well putting patients' lives at risk, with your nit-picking obedience of f***ing absurd guidance !' seems to have a pro bono publico defence, in my eyes, anyway !)

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    Unfortunately we have been here before. Themway the top brass protct the management is abhorrent. Hunt and his predicessor tried to remve their legal duty of care from the NHS in the new bill, whilst still remaining in charge and mking the decisions which lead to it's failure.

    I can't wait tosee the publication of the Risk Register. It will come out when the NHS falls apart, and bythen Lansley and Hunt will be on a board making many millions from the NHS.

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