Major abuse probe at Muckamore Abbey Hospital
AN abuse probe at Northern Ireland's main hospital for adults with learning disabilities has led to 12 nurses being suspended and a major police investigation - with a further 10 suspensions 'pending'.
The Irish News has learned that CCTV footage shows staff allegedly striking vulnerable patients at Muckamore Abbey Hospital and pulling them to the floor by the hair.
Recordings apparently also show some patients being kneed in the testicles, while there are claims of 'unauthorised seclusion' and adults 'being left in the dark' without supervision.
Other mentally ill patients were said to be locked out and left alone in the Co Antrim grounds for "up to one hour" while footage also appears to show patients being 'dragged' into bedrooms.
Such is the scale of the crisis that agency nurses are being flown in from England to provide emergency cover at the facility near Antrim town, with the health service paying for them to stay at the nearby Dunadry four-star hotel.
It is understood the allegations are linked to the psychiatric intensive care unit (PICU) at Muckamore, which is staffed by almost 25 specialist nursing staff.
- Muckamore continuing to provide long-term care despite drive to end 'institutional' settings
Half of the ward's staff have been suspended, while letters were sent by recorded delivery to a further 10 nurses yesterday for interview.
Sources say concerns have been raised about one male nurse who was sacked from a previous job in a children's care facility for sexual harassment and gross misconduct last year - but was re-employed by the Belfast health trust to work in Muckamore. Another nurse has been accused of punching a patient in the face, a claim he denies.
Muckamore CCTV footage compared to Winterbourne View home scandal
It is understood that Northern Ireland's most senior health officials have privately compared the footage to the Winterbourne View home scandal in England, which led to the jailing of six care workers in 2012 after secret filming exposed horrendous abuse of disabled patients.
Last November it emerged that six nurses had been suspended from Muckamore but The Irish News has learned there has been a spike in the number of suspensions over the past fortnight.
Families of patients have been informed about the latest allegations in recent days.
Red flag 'alerts' have been issued by the Department of Health warning potential employers about at least two individuals, while there has been multiple referrals to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) London.
Details of the unprecedented level of suspensions come after a whistleblower healthcare worker at Muckamore claimed that staff were suffering violent assaults by patients, and criticised lack of action by trust managers.
The hospital, which provides specialist inpatient care to learning disability and mental health patients who have severely challenging conditions, receives referrals from across Northern Ireland.
Many of the patients are classed as 'long-stay' as they cannot be discharged due to the complexity of their illnesses - with one patient 'residing' there for more than 40 years.
While the trust confirmed it was working alongside the PSNI as part of a joint investigation last year, there have been no prosecutions to date.
A leading nurse last night questioned the trust's handling of the crisis over such a lengthy period.
"These patients are among the most vulnerable people in our society and we do have serious concerns about the trust's ability to safeguard patients," Janice Smyth, director of the NI Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said.
"A significant amount of time has passed, with some allegations dating back to last April. This is a terribly long time to investigate safeguarding issues.
"During that time nurses have had their practices restricted and there has been a reliance on agency staff... learning disability is a very specific type of specialist nursing."
'It would appear staff and patients weren't aware CCTV was in operation'
The RCN chiefs also questioned the issue of consent around CCTV recording.
"It would appear that staff and patients weren't aware that CCTV was in operation," she said.
The Irish News asked the Belfast trust to provide figures on the latest number of suspensions and any developments in its investigation, as well as addressing concerns around 'covert' CCTV filming.
She said: "Belfast Trust can confirm that a further number of staff have been placed on precautionary suspension following CCTV evidence of inappropriate treatment of patients. It should be noted that a full consultation was carried out with both staff and families when the CCTV cameras were installed.
"The trust is satisfied that the care of current patients is safe, and we continue to be in regular communication with families of patients affected."
A police spokeswoman was unable to comment on the number of nurses interviewed by the PSNI team leading the safeguarding probe.
"There have been no prosecutions to date, however the investigation remains ongoing," she said.