Northern Ireland news

Muckamore Abbey Hospital: MP Gavin Robinson castigates trust over 'suppression' of information

The heartbroken parents of a patient who was abused at Muckamore are demanding a public inquiry. Picture by Ann McManus
Seanín Graham

AN MP who played a crucial role in exposing the Muckamore Abbey Hospital abuse scandal last night branded the Belfast health trust's 'suppression' of the crisis as "diabolical".

In an interview with The Irish News, the DUP's Gavin Robinson has spoken for the first time about the "grave level of concern" and "frank admissions" expressed by two top officials at the Department of Health about the trust in a private meeting he attended with them three months ago.

Details of the meeting were revealed in yesterday's Irish News, with the department's director of social work, Sean Holland, admitting they were unaware of the scale of the abuse as "information was being contained for a significant period of time".

A second department chief, Chris Matthews, privately added that the abuse was "systemic" - and that they only became aware of it following a phone call from Mr Robinson in August last year in relation to a constituent whose vulnerable son had been assaulted by staff at the Co Antrim hospital's Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).

Mr Matthews described that call as the "trigger" but revealed he spent "months" going back and forth to the trust seeking answers in what became an "internal tussle", adding that the initial information provided by trust officials was "not exactly a reflection of the reality".

Commending the intervention and "probing" of Mr Matthews, the East Belfast MP was hugely critical of the trust's failure to keep the department informed.

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"I genuinely believe if Chris Matthews hadn't been in the department at that time, having had the wherewithal to push back against the trust's position, we would never have learned what we needed to learn about the appalling situation in Muckamore," he said.

"The trust's position was diabolical. It was 'nothing to see here', please move along. That lack of candour shows exactly why the hyponatraemia inquiry’s recommendation about duty of candour is so important."

Mr Robinson said he had been aware that Mr Holland had been "unlocking the need for further investigation" of the abuse and that it took a year for the private briefing between them to be arranged.

The meeting, which took place at DUP headquarters in the east of the city, was also attended by Mr Robinson's constituent, a father-of-four from Dundonald who believed the trust had "fobbed him off" about the ill treatment of his son.

There was a fortnight delay in telling the parent about the assault. He was initially told it was a "one-off" and that there was no CCTV footage. It has now emerged there are 43 incidents of mistreatment relating to his son over a three-month period last year - all captured on CCTV.

Mr Holland told Mr Robinson and the parent he was unaware of what was going on: "The reality is we didn't know the scale of it until you contacted us last year. We should have known about it at that stage... I want to thank you for bringing it to us," he said at the September meeting.

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In an official response at the weekend to queries from The Irish News about the delay in alerting the department, the Belfast trust admitted there was an initial three-week delay in reporting due to ward staff failing to forward the complaint.

However, it denied there had been any "containment" or "suppression" of information, instead stating that its reporting to the department had been "swift" - an assertion at odds with the concerns raised by Mr Holland and Mr Matthews.

Mr Robinson last night backed Muckamore families’ calls for a public inquiry and said in the absence of an Executive, the Secretary of State should order one.

He said that "particularly when you have competing interests from the trust and the department, I think it's best to take it outside of that political sphere and put it into independently minded people".

“The Secretary of State should be be encouraged to consider the Muckamore independent report, engage with families and the Department of Health and give serious consideration to establishing an inquiry.”

The East Belfast MP also said he would want such an inquiry to be "short and sharp" as opposed to the lengthy delays experienced in the 14-year inquiry into hyponatraemia-related deaths.

He described the "heartbreak" that had been experienced by his constituent.

"From the moment I met him I was appalled by what I heard, appalled. I could see the anguish in this man... here is someone who wanted to protect his son and sought the sanctuary of Muckamore - not knowing his son was going to suffer in there."

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