Nurses and other clinicians found guilty of “wilful neglect” of patients could face prison, under measures due to be published next week by the government, the prime minister has said.
However, the Royal College of Nursing has questioned the necessity of the new law and argued that action should instead be focused on legally enforceable staffing levels.
Wilful neglect will be made a criminal offence and be modelled on one punishable by up to five years in prison under the Mental Capacity Act, according to reports.
The policy is being trailed in the national media today ahead of major government announcements on health and the NHS next week.
It will be officially unveiled next week when ministers publish their full response to the Francis report on care failings at Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust and a series of other high profile reviews that have taken place this year.
A sanction for wilful neglect was one of the recommendations made by Professor Don Berwick in his review of NHS patient safety, the findings of which were published in August.
The involvement of No 10 reveals the importance with which the government response to Francis and the other reviews is being taken.
Commenting on the new law on wilful neglect, David Cameron said: “The NHS is full of brilliant doctors, nurses and other health workers who dedicate their lives to caring for our loved ones.
“But Mid-Staffordshire hospital showed that sometimes the standard of care is not good enough. That is why we have taken a number of different steps that will improve patient care and improve how we spot bad practice.”
He added: “Never again will we allow substandard care, cruelty or neglect to go unnoticed”.
“This is not about a hospital worker who makes a mistake, but specific cases where a patient has been neglected or ill-treated. This offence will make clear that neglect is unacceptable and those who do so will feel the full force of the law.”
In response, Peter Carter, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, said he would “never excuse those who wilfully neglect patients”.
But he argued that “remedies already exist to tackle staff who are guilty of harming patients and we would question whether a new law is actually required”.
“When things go wrong, as well as looking at the actions of an individual clinician, we also need to look at the whole system that surrounds a care failing. Too often, frontline staff are trying to deliver care against a backdrop of intense pressure and woefully inadequate staffing levels,” he said.
“If the government are willing to look at introducing new legislation to protect patients, then the area they should be concentrating on is ensuring legally enforceable safe staffing levels. This measure would have the single biggest impact in improving care across the NHS,” he added.
Documents obtained by Nursing Times reveal that the government is planning to tell trusts to act on staffing levels in its response to Francis report, but it will not support a minimum staffing ratio.
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