An independent review into a GP jailed for carrying out 23 indecent assaults on patients over a 20 year period has found NHS staff could have acted at least 12 years earlier than they did.

Roy Murray, who had been a singlehanded GP in St Helens, Merseyside, was finally suspended from practice in 2002 and jailed in 2004.

The review published by NHS North West last week found NHS staff and organisations wrongly believed they needed knowledge of multiple incidents before they could act. They also failed to piece together incriminating information and in some cases thought issues lay outside their responsibility.

Despite Dr Murray’s falling practice list size, brusque manner with patients and poor timekeeping, “senior officers explained away Dr Murray’s evident problems, including seeing him as a dour Scot who did not suffer fools gladly” the report found.

Even though several patients made formal complaints, no action was taken until 2002 when a whistle blower alerted St Helens primary care trust following a chance conversation with a practice manager.

The review team questioned the PCT’s recordkeeping and said there had been an “evident lack of priority” given to implementing an action plan to improve procedures.

Health officials have yet to decide whether disciplinary action should be taken against staff who did not act when concerns were first raised.

In a statement on behalf of the strategic health authority and Halton and St Helens PCT, SHA chief executive Mike Farrar apologised to patients.

He said: “The local NHS organisations have already adopted many of the reforms recommended in the report and all organisations are committed to implementing these and the rest in full.”

The organisations added the PCT had made “significant progress” in addressing concerns since it was restructured in 2006.

A separate study published in the British Journal of General Practice into how the PCT dealt with poor clinical performance between 2002 and 2007 found whistleblowers were responsible for 42 per cent of complaints. That was more than twice the national average, which the research authors attributed to the work the PCT had done to improve whistle blowing procedures as a result of the case.