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NHSE wants ‘witch hunt’ lessons shared widely, says trust’s CEO

Published on: 1 Mar 2022

NHS England wants lessons learned by a trust overhauling its culture after a high-profile bullying scandal to be shared systemwide because similar problems have been evident at other trusts, the hospital’s boss has said.

West Suffolk Foundation Trust interim chief executive Craig Black said the trust was getting national level “support” to help with a cultural overhaul after a scathing independent review published in December concluded the trust’s hunt for a whistleblower had been “intimidating… flawed, and not fit for purpose”.

Mr Black said he thought NHSE would be “looking to learn from what we are doing” because senior managers viewed concerns raised in the West Suffolk review as having ”resonance with a number of organisations in the NHS at the moment”.

As well as the specific “witch hunt” case, the review raises wider issues about how trusts respond to whistleblowing and other concerns about care and patient safety.

West Suffolk’s executive director of workforce and communications Jeremy Over told the meeting the cultural change required was “organisational development which will take time, significant time”.

Both executives were speaking at the trust’s January board meeting, which was discussing a report written by Mr Over on the trust’s response to the review.

Mr Black recalled a conversation he had with NHSE East of England regional director Ann Radmore. Summarising the conversation to the board he said: “She was highlighting the fact that the issues contained in the review have resonance with a number of organisations in the NHS at the moment.”

He added: “You only have to look at the Health Service Journal to see how many organisations are dealing with some of these issues…. Hence the work that is happening nationally and I think [the national team] will be looking to learn from what we are doing, and all organisations can support each other.”

The report, West Suffolk Review – organisational development plan (p. 217), sets out nine broad themes of work, linked to the trust’s core functions, “that capture the priority areas for organisational and cultural development at WSFT in light of the learnings from the report”. 

The document sets out how the trust’s governance, freedom to speak up, HR, staff voice, patient safety and other parts of its corporate infrastructure failed and contributed to a scandal.

Organisational development ‘will take significant time’

Mr Over told the meeting the paper attempted to provide a “coherent, comprehensive [strategy] that provides assurance to many parties that we’re on the right track and responding as we should”.

“Region have asked us to return a full action plan and board response to them by 11 February and have asked for colleagues in the national people’s team to provide advice and support for that.

“There is some risk in thinking that if we tick off some of the actions in the plan we can all move on. I don’t see it that way and I don’t believe [the board] sees it that way either.

“This is about organisational development which will take time, significant time, I would argue.”

The trust said the final plan was due to be published at its 25 March board meeting.

The 226-page review, led by the Christie Foundation Trust chair Christine Outram, detailed an extraordinary web of events in which directors, including then chief executive Steve Dunn, contravened a variety of whistleblowing and governance rules in the hunt for a whistleblower.

The review said: “The impact of the trust’s actions [to find the author of the anonymous letter] was nothing short of disastrous… The poorly designed process… not only meant that it lacked credibility internally but also that any disciplinary action taken in the light of it was likely to be susceptible to robust and credible challenge.”

The whistleblower had sent a letter to the relative of a Susan Warby, 57, a patient who had died at the Suffolk hospital on 30 August 2018 of multi-organ failure and other complications, highlighting errors in her surgery. The letter said there was a “cover-up” to ensure these errors did not become public.

Several senior board members have stepped down since the scandal broke, branded a “witch hunt” by a staff union, including Mr Dunn, although he remains on full pay from the trust, with an annual remuneration package worth £270,000, until September 2022.

Chair Sheila Childerhouse stood down in December shortly after the report was published. She said she took “personal accountability” for failings and was “sincerely sorry”.

The trust appointed Jude Chin as interim chair in January. Mr Chin was already a non-executive director at the trust. He is a former vice-chair of Colchester Hospital University FT. The trust said in a statement that the process to find a permanent appointment was under way.