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.”