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Health service chief Richard Pengelly breaks silence about 'truly shocking' findings of Muckamore Hospital abuse probe

Care failings and abuse of patients have been highlighted at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, Co Antrim. Picture by Mal McCann
Seanín Graham

THE most senior civil servant in the health service has broken his silence about the "truly shocking" findings of a report into abuse at Muckamore Abbey Hospital.

Richard Pengelly had initially refused to answer questions put to him by The Irish News about families' calls for a public inquiry.

However, last night he spoke out after it emerged that an independent probe had found that patients’ lives had been put at risk at the regional facility in Co Antrim.

The Irish News has previously revealed how CCTV cameras captured healthcare professionals assaulting patients in a psychiatric intensive care unit.

Serious concerns about nepotism, missing patient files and a culture which was “shaped by the use of power” were also revealed in the expert probe, which criticised senior hospital managers for dismissing complaints by relatives who suspected wrongdoing.

Families have repeatedly called for a public inquiry into the scandal in recent months.

Read more: Damning report on hospital abuse revealed

Mr Pengelly said last night the department was focused on investigating the allegations and making sure patients are safe. However, he did not issue an apology.

"There is no other way of describing the findings of the panel's report than truly shocking," he said.

"While the immediate priority must be to support patients and families with whom the report has now been shared, the department is determined that any future action it might take reflects the seriousness of what has happened.

"While it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time in light of the ongoing police investigation, I can assure the public that this will involve full transparency and detailed consideration of the report and its recommendations, as well as the outcomes of the ongoing safeguarding and police investigations."

He said the department will make a further statement "in due course".

Mr Pengelly, who is the permanent secretary at the department, is also the overall chief executive of the north’s Health and Social Care (HSC) system and its most senior executive in the absence of a health minister.

An initial response from the department said it accepted the report into Muckamore “makes for uncomfortable reading” for those in HSC.

“..the department will consider the detail and recommendations of the report very carefully, while continuing to ensure that all necessary and appropriate action is taken by the Belfast Trust to ensure patient safety in Muckamore,” it added.

Read more: Calls for public inquiry by Muckamore families must be heeded (premium)

The mother of a Muckamore patient who was left traumatised by care failings hit out at the initial “weak” response.

Catherine Fox (59) from west Belfast said her adult daughter, who suffers from learning disabilities and has a brain tumour, compared a room where she was kept in ‘seclusion’ at the hospital to a jail.

She accused the health service yesterday of “hiding” behind the police probe.

“I am shocked by the department’s response as I had hoped Mr Pengelly would come out in person to apologise and speak in the strongest possible terms about the findings of this investigation. What they are saying is very weak,” she said.

“The reality is parents and carers were not listened to when they made complaints to health officials about abuse of our loved ones. I made complaints in 2016 about the use of seclusion and no-one did anything. We want answers now and people made accountable.

“When you look at the Winterbourne View care home abuse scandal in Bristol in 2011, we know the British government ordered an inquiry and six people were jailed a year later. The PSNI have told me the Muckamore abuse is worse than Winterbourne.”

Meanwhile, the Belfast health trust last night reiterated its “unreserved apology” to families and patients affected by the crisis.

Marie Heaney, the trust’s director of adult social care, said the trust “fully accepts” the findings of the report.

“We have not waited for the final report to be made available to us before acting. Much has been done to improve the leadership and management arrangements at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, with the goal of ensuring that the voices of patients, family carers, advocates and others are clearly and effectively part of the future arrangements there,” she said.

“A director oversight group led by myself and the director of nursing is in place and the trust is whole-heartedly committed to ensuring all the recommendations are realised and we welcome ongoing scrutiny.”

Read more: Families speak of trauma caused to patients

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