Northern Ireland

Two more staff suspended at Muckamore Abbey hospital over abuse scandal as crisis forces closure of intensive care unit

More staff are facing suspensions at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, Co Antrim Picture Mal McCann.
More staff are facing suspensions at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, Co Antrim Picture Mal McCann.

THE psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at Muckamore Abbey hospital was closed last night due to an unprecedented level of nursing suspensions linked to an abuse scandal, the Irish News has learned.

It has emerged a further two staff have been suspended from the Co Antrim regional facility since Wednesday after CCTV footage revealed ill treatment of  severely learning disabled patients.

This brings the total number of suspensions to 17 - the majority of whom are registered nurses.

Families whose loved ones are in the six-bedded PICU - which cares  for the sickest psychiatric patients from across Northern Ireland - were telephoned yesterday evening by management unit and informed of the "temporary" closure, which could be for "at least a week".

Patients are to be transferred to other wards, sparking concerns among parents about the lack of continuity of care.

A Belfast trust spokesman confirmed the PICU closure, stating its "priority is to provide a safe service". The Department of Health and health watchdog, the RQIA, were also informed.

Such is the scale of the crisis that concerns have been raised about the sustainability of the hospital, which provides specialist inpatient care to adults with severe learning disabilities and mental health illnesses from across the north.

The Irish News has learned the latest suspensions relate to ill treatment of patients on the Cranfield admissions ward, which was captured on CCTV cameras between March and September last year.

A spokesman for the Belfast health trust last night confirmed that two more members  of staff have been suspended since Wednesday.

Sources say that further action is expected potentially against another seven individuals, with 'meetings' expected to take place in coming weeks.

The trust spokesman added: "We are continuing to view historical CCTV footage and where we have concerns that behaviour could be considered as abusive, we will invite staff for an interview and will take appropriate action as necessary, including suspension.

"One member of staff was suspended on Wednesday (19 December), and one member of staff was suspended today (21 December). There were no further interviews with staff today although we anticipate that interviews with staff may be necessary in the coming weeks."

A police investigation into the scandal has been ongoing for more than a year, with the National Crime Agency (NCA) recently appointed to assist the PSNI probe.

The first group of staff were initially suspended following an investigation linked to the hospital's PICU, in which CCTV images found abuse of seriously ill adults over the same six-month period between March and September last year. 

Patients were punched, kicked and dragged by the hair into bedrooms while other were taunted, "left in the dark" without supervision and put in "unmonitored" seclusion for lengthy periods.

Staff were unaware that the cameras were switched on, as the CCTV was not supposed to go 'live' until last September.

Due to the scale of the abuse, a decision was taken to view footage across the hospital wards.

Last Friday, two more staff were suspended in relation to mistreatment of patients on the 'Cranfield 1’ unit - with sources saying it is "every bit as bad, if not worse" than the incidents discovered at the PICU.

On Monday evening, the most senior individual in the health service, permanent secretary Richard Pengelly, met with three families whose loved ones had been abused and issued an apology - while indicating more suspensions were likely.

A parent who attended the meeting has learned there are now 43 "incidents" of abuse linked to his vulnerable son, who is non-verbal. Last August he was told than an assault on his autistic son was a "one-off".

Speaking to the Irish News last night, he said the latest developments were "deeply worrying".

"I was told we would be kept in the loop by the trust but this is the first I have heard of more action against staff. I don't know what is going to happen to this hospital if the suspensions continue. Our son is settled in PICU, we are devastated by its closure," he said.

Agency nurses are currently being flown in from England to provide cover in Muckamore, an arrangement that has been ongoing for more than six months.

Sinn Féin health spokesman Pat Sheehan questioned the future of the hospital.

"My foremost concern in all of this is for the patients and how they will be affected but these level of suspensions call into question the sustainability of Muckamore both in the short and long term," he said.

An independent report into the crisis, which was commissioned by the Belfast trust, was last week published and confirmed that patients' lives at Muckamore were put at risk.