I helped expose the Mid Staffs hospital scandal – and fear the NHS is about to repeat its worst mistakes
It's been ten years since the inquiry into the scandal – and I'm unsure how much the government have learned
At the time the crisis was unfolding, I was a naive young newspaper journalist working for the Express & Star, which in those days had a branch office in Stafford town centre. I came into contact with Julie Bailey and an extraordinary group of bereaved families after the paper published a story about the death of Julie’s mother Bella in November 2007.
Over the months and years that followed, I worked with those families to tell their stories, and uncover how Stafford Hospital had let down its patients in the most appalling ways – an investigation that culminated in a public inquiry.
The sheer injustice and cruelty meted out on Stafford Hospital’s wards was one of the darkest days in the health service’s 71-year history.
Listening to the evidence given by dozens of witnesses at the public inquiry laid bare for me the deep pain that comes from losing a loved one in such appalling conditions.
The years I spent reporting on Mid Staffs had a profound impact on me – so profound that I decided to become a health journalist.
Throughout the last decade, Mid Staffs has been my constant companion, a star to sail by as I navigate, and interrogate, the health service.
I have never set out to look for the next Mid Staffs. Instead, I have sought to expose the NHS to the disinfectant of sunlight to prevent the next Mid Staffs from occurring. In the years since I have helped expose multiple NHS failures small and large including the maternity scandal in Morecambe Bay, and most recently the poor care at The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals Trust.
In an interview with The Independent today, Sir Robert Francis QC, the man who published his first report into the scandal almost exactly ten years ago, told me he remains worried whether things have improved since Mid Staffs.
He remains concerned about the lack of regulation of NHS staff and the fear many health staff have of speaking up about problems.
However, Sir Robert is also positive about some developments and the overall safety of the NHS. He rightly points out how Mid Staffs is still discussed in the health services, and that quality of service is still seen as important as financial concerns.
I wish I could share Sir Robert’s optimism – but I fear the NHS is at risk of repeating many of the mistakes of Mid Staffs.
In my view, the leadership culture in the NHS today remains extremely toxic, with bullying rife, and discrimination against staff who speak out.
The health service also remains chronically short of nurses – a critical role for ensuring the safety of any ward – while the number of patients soars, stretching staff more and more to cut corners and do the best they can.
Perhaps the overarching problem is that the health service has been starved of cash for almost a decade; the government’s seemingly impressive pledge of an extra £20bn really just returns the service to average levels of spending.
I recognise that from my position it can be all too easy to see the negative, and I know that in reality, great strides are being taken to improve care across the NHS.
But the pressures and risks on the system are immense and growing. The fact these do not lead to Mid Staffs style disasters on a more frequent basis is largely down to staff at all levels doing the best, in spite of, the flawed system in which they find themselves.
The new Conservative government and its health secretary, Matt Hancock, are keen to regularly profess their love for the NHS. So too were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who loved the NHS so much they would tolerate no bad news about it. It was a case of meet the targets, and never embarrass the minister. This Whitehall culture trickled down until nurses at Stafford were scared to raise an eyebrow, never mind their voices.
With its new majority, the government must be careful not to follow in Labour’s footsteps – and remember that to love the NHS means to face up to its problems and act to address them.
The legacy of Mid Staffs must be to never look the other way again.