news focus

Published: 31/10/2002, Volume II2, No. 5829 Page 16

Under the glare of flash bulbs and TV cameras, how do NHS hospitals cope with 'celebrity'prison patients? Mark Gould reports on the case of Maxine Carr

When Maxine Carr had to spend a night in a London teaching hospital, her medical condition was not the only challenge for managers and clinicians.

The 'hospital dash' by Ms Carr, remanded on charges of attempting to pervert the course of justice in connection with the murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, was given enormous coverage by the tabloid press.

But Ms Carr is hardly the first 'famous' remand prisoner to call on the services of the NHS. And over the years, convicted criminals have also made high-profile appearances. Moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, the Kray twins, their brother Charlie and great train robber Ronnie Biggs are among those who have received emergency care.

While 'hospital dash' stories are manna from journalistic heaven, the presence of a notorious figure can create serious headaches for the NHS. Though Ms Carr was at the Whittington Hospital in north London for just 24 hours, chief executive Trevor Campbell Davis says the media were not slow to seize their opportunity: 'We had hoax phone calls from people saying they were either the London Ambulance Service or family members asking how the patient was.'

He concedes that media interest could increase tension within a hospital. 'Coverage can range from the responsible to the obstructive.

Some less responsible members of the press can do things that can impede good healthcare.' The Whittington regularly provides outpatient and accident and emergency care to prisoners from nearby Holloway and Pentonville prisons, including convicted murderers, so extra resources for security are always an issue.

Mr Campbell Davis says the key to ensuring prisoners receive the care they need, and that other patients and staff are not disrupted, is good planning and firm relationships with prison staff.

'It is important the person responsible for security knows the hospital site.You must be aware of the possibility of patients being harmed by the public or other patients or even trying to escape.

'You have to ensure the level of security that addresses these points. You can't have anyone totally isolated - you have to have the patients in a secure side room with security enough to ensure they cannot get out.'

However, Mr Campbell Davis agrees that the presence of Ms Carr following the national expression of grief and revulsion at the Soham murders did affect the hospital. 'You can't stop people thinking about the things people are accused of, or have been found guilty of. The media takes a position on the guilt or innocence of these people and some patients and staff pick that up.'

But he says none of the staff at the Whittington had any objections to treating Ms Carr.

'We always remember we are dealing with a prisoner and we also remember that our first priority to them is as a patient. Clinical and managerial staff have codes of conduct which state that patients have a right to be treated, and we are not here to be judge or jury either.'

For Linda Marsh, communications director at south-east London's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where Ronnie Biggs was moved three times last year from Belmarsh Prison, the experience sometimes descended into farce.

'Uri Geller turned up with News of the World and Sun journalists as part of a media campaign to get British citizenship for Mr Biggs' son. He was outside bending spoons for patients. They wanted to visit Mr Biggs, who was in a single room off a ward.We had to step in and ask them to leave because it would not be appropriate for all these people to disturb the ward.'

The media also seized on the idea that two of the hospital's volunteers looked like the Kray twins. 'They wanted to run a story that Biggs had the Krays as his minders, but the volunteers were upset and refused.'

After more than 30 years on the run in Brazil, Mr Biggs and his family are probably more famous in South America than the UK. 'We had to have a 24-hour press office - we had calls from around the world.

I was doing radio interviews with Argentina, where he is a folk hero.'

As the major receiving hospital for Belmarsh, Queen Elizabeth Hospital has also treated the Kray twins and their brother Charlie, so the hospital is well practised in dealing with major media interest. 'When you have a patient like this, when the whole of the world's media are interested, it puts as much pressure on the press office as a major incident.

'But we are all aware that we have the same duty of confidentiality to patients transferred from prison as we do to everyone else.

'Everyone has media training as part of their induction and they are all aware of what can be said with regards to a condition check.'

And her advice to other hospitals on dealing with notorious patients? 'I would tell them to establish with the media that the press office is the sole point of contact and the only place the media can get information. We didn't want journalists running round the hospital bothering people.'