The Department of Health is to launch an independent review into allegations of bullying and harassment against East Midlands strategic health authority.

The allegations were made following a row over targets that led to the departure of a hospital trust chair.

United Lincolnshire Hospitals trust chair David Bowles was suspended last week, he says, having told NHS East Midlands and the Appointments Commission he intended to resign.

Trust chief executive Gary Walker is on sick leave with stress and did not attend Tuesday’s trust annual meeting.

In separate letters, Mr Bowles and Mr Walker both asked NHS chief executive David Nicholson to step in.

Mr Bowles demanded an investigation into the behaviour of NHS East Midlands, which he accused of applying undue pressure to meet access targets.

Mr Nicholson announced the independent review on Tuesday. He said it would be led by former SHA chief executive Neil Goodwin and would be expected to finish by the end of August.

He said: “It is clear that there have been serious performance problems at ULHT but the focus of this review will be on how the SHA has responded to performance issues at [the trust] in particular the allegations of bullying and harassment… Following consideration of the outcome, it is my intention to make the findings and my response public.”

Mr Bowles also wrote to shadow health minister and neighbouring constituency MP Mark Simmonds, saying he has witnessed “what appears to be a substitution of bullying for performance management and an obsession with targets rather than safety”.

Managers in Partnership chief executive Jon Restell, who is not representing any of the managers involved, said: “We welcome the investigation, which is needed in light of the allegations that have been made publicly.”

Mr Bowles said he had refused to guarantee the trust would hit the 18-week referral to treatment target, citing “exceptionally high emergency demand”.

He told HSJ: “In the interest of patient safety I and my board refused to give unequivocal assurances on the non-urgent target and for so doing are now being undermined in the media.”

Speaking before the review was announced, NHS East Midlands chief executive Dame Barbara Hakin told HSJ regional investigations in response to the failings at Mid Staffordshire foundation trust had revealed governance concerns and a “ward to board disconnect” at United Lincolnshire, though there were no patient safety concerns.

She acknowledged demand had increased, but said “efficient and effective, well run organisations have managed this increased demand and still managed to give patients waiting times in line with government targets”.

Dame Barbara said: “We had concerns [that] because of poor systems and processes the organisation wasn’t able to treat patients in a timely fashion.”

But Mr Walker told HSJ: “I met with the SHA chief executive and the interim chair of the trust last Thursday and the chief executive said she had no concerns she wished to act on immediately.”

Dame Barbara denied allegations of bullying, saying SHA staff had done “everything we can to support the trust and its senior players”.

“I personally will always attempt to do everything I can to support all senior executives to help them through times which are difficult.”

But she said it was critical that patient safety, patient experience and high quality care were the SHA’s primary concern: “Where we feel that through our support we can’t be assured of that, we have to take appropriate action.”

She said she would “hugely welcome” an independent review

Former Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals foundation trust vice chair Paul Richardson has been appointed as interim chair.