Northern Ireland news

Belfast health trust boss admits failures in reporting Muckamore abuse to department

Muckamore Abbey Hospital is at the centre of an unprecedented police investigation into patient abuse
Seanín Graham

THE head of Northern Ireland's biggest health trust accepted there were "clear failures" in alerting government to the Muckamore hospital abuse scandal, it has emerged.

Martin Dillon, who is chief executive of the Belfast trust but has yet to speak publicly about the crisis, admitted in private correspondence that "management and leadership behaviours" at his organisation required "further investigation and action".

The Co Antrim facility is at the centre of the biggest criminal adult safeguarding investigation of its kind in the north after CCTV cameras recorded staff physically assaulting patients with severe learning disabilities between March and September 2017.

A total of 19 staff - mainly nurses - have been suspended.

Read More: Muckamore families welcome police searches but concern about length of investigation

Mr Dillon's letter, which was written in response to scathing criticism from the Department of Health about the trust's "wholly unacceptable delays" in informing it about patient abuse, was obtained by The Irish News under Freedom of Information legislation.

It was initially held back due to the ongoing police investigation and the level of detail it contains - but was forwarded last week.

Physical assaults of patients, inappropriate use of restraint, nurses sleeping on duty, failure to supervise meals of vulnerable patients and professional staff 'observing' poor practice but not reporting it were among the initial 'incidents' found on CCTV recordings.

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A disturbing account of a staff nurse "kicking the bedroom door" of a patient in the middle of the night before entering the room is also detailed and described as "highly significant".

The same nurse, who was suspended, is accused of assaulting the patient - but this could not be proven as there was no CCTV in the bedroom.

The letter is dated November 3 2017 - three months after the first 'incident' of a patient being abused by a staff member emerged - and addresses a litany of failings levelled at the trust's chief executive in a letter sent to him the previous month by two top officials at the Department of Health.

Read More: Timeline of Muckamore abuse investigation

Chief social worker Sean Holland and chief nursing officer Charlotte McArdle had expressed their "considerable alarm" at trust's failure to alert them to the scale of the crisis, saying they only became aware of it following a phone call from a politician on behalf of a constituent.

Concerns had also been raised about the time lag in reporting the crisis as a Serious Adverse Incident (SAI) - meaning it required a major independent probe.

Mr Dillon replied there had been "detailed scrutiny" of its reporting systems for serious abuse, adding that "it is evident there were clear failures both internally and externally in respect of these requirements".

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"Incident reporting in Learning Disability Services is a key quality indicator and the management and leadership behaviours in this area will be subject to further investigation and action," he wrote.

"Please accept my unreserved apology for our shortcomings in this regard and for the concern this has raised about patient safety and quality of service provided to these most vulnerable adults in our care.

"I will ensure that the learning from the timelines and around reporting both internal and external is applied in the future."

Up until now, the official line from the trust has been there was a "delay" in ward staff informing their superiors about 'incidents' about vulnerable adults being assaulted - but that once management were informed "swift action was taken".

However, in his letter, Mr Dillion admits there were "errors" by the trust in providing "early alerts" - such as SAI notification - to the Department of Health, Public Health Agency and Health and Social Care Board. Such alerts are provided by more senior members of staff.

Read More: Muckamore scandal prompts concerns over procedure around registration of support workers

"I acknowledge and apologise for this error. Again, we we will learn from this," Mr Dillon wrote.

The DUP's Gavin Robinson, who tipped off Department of Health officials about Muckmore abuse after being contacted by a parent in August 2017, said the correspondence confirmed in the "starkest terms" a "lack of transparency" in the Belfast trust.

"Their failure to follow appropriate reporting, their lack of transparency and their apparent willingness to withhold key information from the department, elected representatives and, more importantly, the families involved, has been laid bare.

"The Belfast trust is compounding the sense of betrayal families feel.

"If confidence and accountability is to be restored, I remain firmly of the view that a public inquiry will be necessary and without an Executive in place, the Secretary of State is the only empowered person to do so."

The Irish News asked the trust to respond to Mr Robinson's accusations. An interview request was also submitted for Mr Dillon, who was unavailable.

Instead, a spokesman said they wished to "reiterate our apology for the shortcomings in the timeliness of how incidents were reported to the Department of Health".

He added: "We accept this may have further compounded the distress felt by those patients and their families who have been affected. We will continue to work fully with the department and all other relevant agencies and we are cooperating with them in whatever way we can."

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