A nurse cleared over the poisoning deaths of patients at Stepping Hill Hospital has claimed staff habitually took drugs from the premises in “case of emergencies” during their holidays.
Rebecca Leighton, 29, spent six weeks in jail after she was arrested over the deaths but was released when prosecutors concluded there was not enough evidence against her.
However, she was sacked for theft after police investigating the deaths found packets of painkillers and opiate-based drugs at her home.
On Monday she admitted removing the medication from the hospital in Stockport, Greater Manchester, and conceded that her fitness to practise was impaired.
During police interviews, she claimed staff regularly took drugs such as the painkiller ibuprofen for their own use, an NMC disciplinary panel was told.
Tom Hoskins, for the NMC, said: “She said that if the police were to search any number of employees from Stepping Hill Hospital, a random person, they would find them also in possession of such tablets.”
He added: “The registrant accepts she had removed them and indicated that a lot of other people at the hospital engaged in the same enterprise, talking about an example where a member of staff would go on holiday and would take the drugs with them in case of emergencies.”
A total of 22 people suffered hypoglycaemic episodes after saline drips were allegedly sabotaged with insulin between June and July 2011 at Stepping Hill.
Eight of these victims - all of whom were being treated on acute care wards for seriously ill patients - have now died.
A second nurse who worked on the same wards, Victorino Chua, was later held on suspicion of three counts of murder and 18 counts of causing grievous bodily harm.
He was further arrested on suspicion of tampering with medical records and has been released on police bail.
Chua was held over the deaths of Tracey Arden, 44, Arnold Lancaster, 71, and Derek Weaver, 83.
Alleged poisoning victims William Dickson, 82, Linda McDonagh, 60, John Beeley, 73, Beryl Hope, 70, and Mary Cartwright, 89, are believed to have eventually died from natural causes.
In the wake of her release, Ms Leighton spoke of her horror at being dubbed a “killer nurse”.
She said she was “passionate” about her job and wanted to return to a “normal life” after charges against her were dropped.
Despite her admission, the panel was hearing evidence to decide whether her fitness to practise is impaired.
Paul Rooney, representing Ms Leighton, told the hearing that the nurse admitted the allegations against her which relate to seven drugs, including tramadol capsules that she is accused of supplying or intending to supply.
He said: “Ms Leighton accepts that these charges amount to misconduct and further accepts that by that misconduct, she has brought the profession into disrepute and therefore her current fitness to practise is impaired.”
During the first day of her hearing, the panel was told how police found packets of drugs in her bedroom, marked with Stepping Hill Hospital’s insignia.
These included boxes labelled ibuprofen; flucloxacillin, an antibiotic; loratadine, an antihistamine; and tramadol hydrochloride, an opiate-based painkiller.
Two sachets labelled Movicol - used to treat constipation - and strips labelled diclofenac sodium, an anti-inflammatory drug, and butylscopolamine (Buscopan), another painkiller, were also recovered.
Ms Leighton later told police she felt “obliged” to take the tramadol because “someone close to her” suffered an ear infection but was apparently unable to get an appointment with their GP, Mr Hoskins said.
In this case, she claimed she had “little other choice”, he told the hearing.
When questioned, Ms Leighton said she took ibuprofen for a sore throat and the antibiotics to treat the onset of tonsillitis, which she believed would prevent her from having to take time off work, the panel heard.
She thought she was entitled to remove the drugs for her own use but conceded the medication was not prescribed to her, Mr Hoskins said.
But interviews with other members of staff employed by the hospital appeared to contradict her suggestion that taking drugs from Stepping Hill Hospital was commonplace.
An investigation by the trust revealed only two employees were aware of the alleged practice but they claimed it was limited to paracetamol and did not extend to prescription drugs, the hearing was told.
Ms Leighton faces being struck off following the hearing, which is due to last three days.
Mr Hoskins said Ms Leighton’s claim of a broader culture of drug theft at the hospital was largely unfounded and perhaps suggested she was seeking to “pass the buck”.
“Ultimately that (claim) was not borne out in the investigation that was carried out,” he said, telling the panel her allegation was not taken any further by police.
“In her heart of hearts, as this registrant was doing these acts, she knew that they were wrong,” he said. “It is for that reason that she has admitted dishonesty.”
He told the panel her actions amounted to an abuse of the trust placed in her as a nurse.
Mr Rooney offered no evidence in defence of her behaviour during the hearing which was adjourned for the panel to consider Ms Leighton’s fitness to practise.
The case will resume on Tuesday.