A group of NHS whistleblowers plans to challenge the government over the level of protection provided to staff who raise concerns.
The Patients First group includes Kim Holt, the paediatrician who raised concerns about the clinic where Baby P was seen before he died, and Steve Bolsin, the anaesthetist who exposed high death rates from cardiac surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary a decade ago. It also counts NHS managers among its members.
Dr Holt this week returned to her job at St Ann’s Clinic in Haringey, London, after four years of negotiations with service operator Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children Trust. She told HSJ the current “structures and systems within the NHS” did not protect staff from retaliation or detriment.
“We are running this campaign in our own time because of our belief that there is a problem with the current culture in the NHS that finds it hard to be open and transparent, and this increases the harm to patients,” she said.
The group has instructed solicitors Leigh Day and Company to explore the possibility of launching a judicial review of structures within the NHS designed to protect whistleblowers. Solicitor Rosa Curling told HSJ the firm was “investigating the options”.
Ms Curling said that the proposals announced by health secretary Andrew Lansley last month to incorporate a requirement into the NHS constitution to protect staff whistleblowers would not actually provide any new legal rights. This was because the constitution was not currently legally binding.
Separately, the charity Public Concern at Work has called on the government to review the Public Interest Disclosure Act in the wake of a Court of Appeal ruling that found employers were “not vicariously liable for retaliatory acts of other workers”.
In this case, three nurses working at an NHS Manchester walk-in centre were found to have suffered “daily personal insults” and threats from other workers after blowing the whistle on a colleague who had exaggerated his experience and qualifications to colleagues.
However, the court found that the primary care trust was not liable for failing to prevent the abuse.
Cathy James, chief executive at the charity, said: “This ruling means that an employer who does not do enough to protect staff from retaliation can hide behind their own inaction and escape liability.
“The law should reflect the very sensible position that individuals should be protected if they are victimised by their colleagues, if we want to encourage workers to speak up.”