Confidential letters reveal Department of Health 'alarm' at being kept in the dark about Muckamore abuse by Belfast trust
PRIVATE correspondence has revealed the anger and "considerable alarm" felt in the Department of Health over the Belfast trust's delay in alerting them to the abuse scandal at Muckamore Abbey hospital.
Letters obtained by The Irish News show the level of concern at the most senior level of government about the "wholly unacceptable" failure of trust officials in passing on information about the crisis - a development they describe as "profoundly disturbing".
The emergence of the documents comes a month after leaked notes of a high-level meeting referred to "suppression" of information by the trust, with Department officials admitting they had to "push" for answers - which were not always a "reflection of reality".
The trust insisted management acted "swiftly," but accepted there was an initial delay in ward staff reporting to management.
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The Co Antrim hospital is now at the centre of the largestcriminal safeguarding investigation of its kind in Northern Ireland after CCTV footage emerged of patients with severe learning disabilities being abused by healthcare staff over a six-month period in 2017. The National Crime Agency has been appointed to assist the PSNI. Almost 20 staff - mainly nurses - have been suspended.
The Department's letter, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, was co-written by its chief social worker, Sean Holland and the chief nursing officer for Northern Ireland, Charlotte McArdle. It was issued to the trust's chief executive, Martin Dillon, on October 20, 2017.
Mr Holland and Ms McArdle express their "growing concern" at the trust's handling of the matter and the fact the Department only became aware of the abuse following a phone call from an MP on behalf of a parent whose son was allegedly assaulted in the hospital's Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit on August 12, 2017.
They hit out the the trust's response to their repeated requests for information, branding it "partial and imprecise".
And they point to the "clear procedures" and timescales for alerting Department chiefs to staff suspensions following abuse of patients - which they say the trust breached.
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"In light of this very clear guidance, it is wholly unacceptable that the Department was not made aware of these allegations through an early alert notification until 7th September," they write.
"Indeed this alert seems to have been raised only after the Department had been prompted to make enquiries following a phone call on 30th August to a senior official by an elected representative acting on behalf of the father of the patient in question.
"....in addition, the Department is deeply concerned to learn following contact with the Health and Social Care Board/Public Health Agency, that the incident was not reported as an SAI (Serious Adverse Incident) until 22 September 2017. Given the seriousness of the circumstances and the potential public interest the Trust should have reported this incident within 72 hours as an SAI...As this did not happen it is clearly a breach of agreed procedures."
The senior health officials are also critical of the trust's failure to inform them of a further report of abuse in another ward which resulted in a staff suspension.
"It was with some considerable alarm that we have learned, through subsequent enquiries made by the Department, that there had been a separate safeguarding concern raised relating to a patient in another ward in Muckamore and also involving a nurse now on precautionary suspension," they added.
"Again we are profoundly disturbed that this further incident was not formally reported to the Department through the Early Alert notification system (indeed no such report has been made at the time of writing)."
In a damning conclusion, Mr Holland and Ms McArdle also question whether the trust has followed safeguarding procedures to protect vulnerable adults - given its "lack of comprehensive, accurate and timely information".
"This is a situation which we find both unacceptable and unsustainable," they write.
A follow-up letter sent by the Department in November 2017 to Mr Dillon also points to the "worrying pattern" of trust 'data' which found just 18 incidents of abuse over an 18 month period and the fact the trust had planned to review only a quarter of the CCTV footage.
They request that "100% of CCTV footage" is viewed and that the highest level SAI should be undertaken into abuse allegations over a five year period.
A trust spokeswoman last night said: "We have been clear from the outset that there was a delay in reporting this incident from ward staff to management but as soon as it was reported to managers swift action was taken."
And she added: "Belfast Trust has accepted there were shortcomings in the timings of reporting in relation to this matter and has apologised to the Department for this. The Department have accepted this apology . Once the new Director became aware of the incidents immediate steps were taken to provide a further update to the Department of Health including SAI Level 3 notification to the Health and Social Care Board and the RQIA. The Department of Health was fully sighted on these matters including updates provided on the 27th, 28th September and on the 4th and 20th October regarding the Trust actions."