Northern Ireland news

Analysis: Culture of 'suppression' cannot continue in Northern Ireland health service

A couple have raised concerns about their son's treatment at Muckamore Abbey Hospital. Picture by Ann McManus
Seanín Graham

"A culture which concealed error" in which parents were "deliberately misled".

That was how the author of a watershed report into the hospital deaths of five children depicted the Northern health service of over 20 years ago.

Delivering his findings in January, following a lengthy probe, high court judge Sir John O'Hara QC castigated those health professionals and managers who had to have the "truth dragged from them" decades later when giving evidence during public hearings.

Central to his report on hyponatraemia-related deaths was a recommendation to introduce a 'duty of candour', making it law for NHS workers and administrators to tell the truth about care failings.

Unknown to the public, in the months leading up to the publication of Mr Justice O'Hara's inquiry, officials at Belfast health trust were being repeatedly asked questions by the Department of Health about serious safeguarding concerns at Muckamore Abbey hospital.

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The only reason those questions were forwarded was because a parent raised the alarm about abuse carried out on his vulnerable son. The man also had an instinct he was being "fobbed off" by Muckamore and Belfast health trust management,

The leaked information published in today's Irish News gives an extraordinary insight into a culture at the Belfast trust where information was "not passed up" to their superiors at the department and how an "internal tussle" developed to get the facts on what has become the biggest adult safeguarding investigation of its kind in Northern Ireland.

In incredibly candid language, a high-ranking official at the department admitted to a parent that the message they were receiving from the trust last year "was not a reflection of the reality" and how the more they "pushed" the "worse the picture was becoming".

While the north's most senior social worker did not accept a 'cover up', he did say the trust was involved in "suppression"and "containment of information" for "significant" amounts of time.

His colleague confirmed "systemic" abuse.

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In an interview with the Irish News last week following the publication of the independent probe, two senior trust directors emphatically denied a 'culture of silence' existed.

While the department has stressed that the trust began to engage with them when more senior staff became involved, serious questions must be asked as to why it took almost four months for the trust to formally write back to the department after the first phone call was made seeking 'an explanation' for what was happening at Muckamore.

Interestingly, the independent report commissioned by the trust makes no reference to the information 'tussle' and the Department's alarm at being kept in the dark.

With an independent inquiry now looking increasingly likely, one can only hope this appalling "suppression" is made public and those at the top who failed to act are exposed and made accountable.

Otherwise, the culture exposed by Mr Justice O'Hara will continue.

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