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CQC probes bullying allegations at national NHS agency

Published on: 28 Jul 2022

Bullying and harassment allegations made against leaders of the organisation that supplies blood to the NHS have prompted a Care Quality Commission review, with staff claiming poor culture has exacerbated the crisis around low blood stocks.

HSJ has learned whistleblowers at NHS Blood and Transplant raised concerns with the CQC. As a result, the regulator has been carrying out a review of the organisation’s leadership.

NHSBT, an agency of the Department of Health and Social Care, said it is aware of the concerns and it is putting plans in place to address them.

Several current and former staff, who wished to remain anonymous, told HSJ there are widespread concerns about the organisation’s culture, which they claim has enabled bullying and harassment from senior employees, including some racist behaviours.

They said the culture has resulted in a significant number of staff being absent due to stress and anxiety, which alongside the latest wave of coronavirus, has contributed to an ongoing staffing crisis.

Staff also said there had been a vacuum of leadership in a key role, as NHSBT’s director of blood supply, Stephen Cornes, who joined the organisation in December last year, has been on extended sick leave, and recently stood down formally. It is not thought Mr Cornes has been accused of any poor behaviour by the whistleblowers.

NHSBT said he stood down due to ongoing health concerns, and internal cover has been in place while an interim director was recruited. A new interim started in post this week.

HSJ has seen internal emails which refer to the CQC’s well-led inspection, and well-placed sources confirmed it was launched because of whistleblowers’ concerns.

The CQC said in a statement: “We are currently undertaking an inspection of services provided by NHS Blood and Transplant and we’ll publish our findings as soon as we are able to.”

A spokeswoman for NHSBT said: “We are aware that, sadly, some staff have raised concerns around bullying and harassment – this was reported in this spring’s staff survey. Investing in people and culture to ensure a high performing, inclusive organisation is one of our top priorities and we are putting a plan in place to tackle bullying and harassment at any level in NHSBT.

“Staff shortages caused by accelerated turnover and the time it takes to recruit and train new colleagues means we are vulnerable to short-term sickness. The summer is always a more challenging time for blood collection as the hot weather also impacts collections and donors are less available.

“We are doing everything we can to support our frontline teams by training and mobilising staff from across NHSBT to do front of house roles at donation sessions and free up clinical staff. We are also reaching out to recent leavers to come back, streamlining our recruitment process, and increasing our use of bank staff. We hope to be able to stabilise our staffing situation over the coming months.

“We encourage colleagues to report issues to our freedom to speak up guardian so we can properly deal with each and every case.”


Low blood stocks

As revealed earlier this month, unprecedented numbers of blood donation sessions are being cancelled due to staffing shortages, which has meant stocks of several different blood types have been running worryingly low.

NHSBT has had to alert hospitals to the situation, urging them to decrease their stock levels and accept substitute blood types where safe to do so. It has also been redeploying some staff to front line roles.

The organisation has been close to issuing an “amber alert” in recent weeks, which would mean it cannot guarantee blood supplies, and hospitals would likely have to scale back elective operations.

An email to hospitals yesterday said: “We are confident that we can maintain supply… for this week. However, we remain concerned about sufficiency of supply over coming weeks, and we ask you to continue to work with us to manage supply and demand.”