The reflex response to the Gosport horror is to call for an independent inquiry. But as Kieran Mullan pointed on this site recently, commissioning a new probe would be to re-invent the wheel. Since the life-shortening administration of opiates to 450 people during the 1990s at Gosport, and the report of the Independent Inquiry Panel last week, we have had the Francis Report into the mid-Staffordshire outrages. It produced 290 recommendations. It is difficult to see what a further report would achieve.
Yet the head of the Dr Foster Unit at Imperial College, London, says that “it’s likely” that similar events were happening in other hospitals. The purpose of the unit is to analyse mortality rate data and provide alerts to the Department of Health for investigation. Brian Jarman, who heads it up, says that he has sent another “ten mortality alerts” to hospitals. So if similar events were happening, are they happening still? The Chief Executive of the Patients Association, Rachel Power, suggests that they are: “although the NHS has made progress in recent years, it is hard to feel confident that failings of this sort are impossible in today’s health service”, she says.
Sir Brian says that whistleblowers need independent protection; Jeremy Hunt believes that this is unnecessary. Whatever one’s view, the debate misses the bigger point: what is most likely to deter doctors, nurses and other medical staff who are willing to act as some did at Gosport is prosecutions. We keep our description of what took place there low-key in order not to help prejudice any, but others will be less euphemistic about the phrase “life-shortening”. Some of the details are outrageous. Here is one auxilary nurse on the prospects of an 80-year old patient, courtesy of Dominic Lawson’s column in yesterday’s Sunday Times. She said that “I remember having a conversation with one of the other auxiliaries [Marion]…we agreed that if he wasn’t careful he would ‘talk himself onto a syringe driver’.”
Now consider the institutional reaction to Gosport over almost 20 years. In August 1998, Gladys Richards died after going into the hospital for rehabilitation following a hip operation. Her family reported what had happened to the police and coroner. Three other families went to the police between that year and 2001. Two more cases were also reported to the NHS Ombudsman. Only in 2005 were files passed by the Hampshire Police to the Crown Prosection Service about the deaths of elderly patients. In 2006, it was announced that there would be no prosecutions. An independent inquiry was finally launched by the Department of Health in 2014, four years after it was confirmed that Jane Barton, a doctor at Gosport found guilty of serious professional misconduct, would not face prosecution.
Hampshire Police have admitted that their investigations were inadequate, and these are now to be handed over to another force. And Jeremy Hunt has hinted that prosecutions will indeed take place, telling the Commons that “we have to make sure that justice is done, and it has been denied for too long.” But relatives of those who died clearly have no confidence in the authorities, and are fund-raising themselves with a view to action. One mother of a woman who died at Gosport has put her view crudely but powerfully: “I don’t trust the Government. Why aren’t there arrests already?”
If the Patients Association is right, what does the possibility of what happened at Gosport then happening at other hospitals now say about the culture of parts of the NHS – this “national treasure” into which the Government is preparing to pour further billions of pounds? But to point fingers at one institution alone would be to miss a wider mark. The hard paradox is that while older people are electorally powerful – perhaps more than ever – they are also individually vulnerable.
This is because they live in a culture in which human life is believed by many to have no absolute value. This is a knock-on effect of the decline of Christianity among the population as a whole. That is something which some of our readers will decry and other will applaud. But either way, one must face up to the consequences – whether for older people whose care comes with a bill for taxpayers, a group to which we can add the severely disabled, or embryos aborted past the point at which they can be delivered alive.