The government has asked the Nursing and Midwifery Council to alert all registered nurses that they are free to speak out over concerns.
A Department of Health letter, seen by Nursing Times, has been sent to the NMC and all professional regulators, making clear nurses cannot be gagged from speaking out on matters of public interest.
The letter, from DH director of professional standards Gavin Larner, follows debate around the widespread use of compromise agreements – often referred to as “gagging” clauses – in the NHS sparked by the Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust Public Inquiry report in February.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt and NHS England chief executive Sir David Nicholson have both said the use of compromise agreements should not stop someone raising patient safety concerns.
The letter reinforces their view. It explicitly states that staff are covered by the Public Interest Disclosure Act “if they feel the need to make certain disclosures in the public interest”, even if they have signed an agreement containing a confidentiality clause.
Future compromise agreements will only be approved by the Treasury if they contain an explicit clause making clear people can still speak out in the public interest.
In the letter, Mr Larner writes: “The existence of a confidentiality clause does not in any way gag – either intentionally or unintentionally – any individual who may wish to raise concerns in the public interest. I should be most grateful if you would seek to ensure that your members and registrants are fully aware of their freedom to speak up where that is in the public interest.”
The NMC told Nursing Times it would respond to the letter “in due course”, but insisted its code of conduct already “obliges nurses and midwives to raise concerns about patient safety and it is important that they should be free to do so”.
The Nursing Times is currently running the Speak Out Safely campaign to protect staff who raise genuine concerns.