• Update: NHSI to disband the panel following families’ concerns
  • Family says panel members had conflicts of interest
  • Panel was set up to review work of independent review team

A controversial panel set up by NHS Improvement to review the findings of an independent investigation into poor maternity care has been disbanded after HSJ exposed concerns it was a “cover up” and that its members were conflicted.

NHS Improvement today said it was standing down the review panel which it set up late last year to review the findings of the Ockenden investigation into Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital Trust.

On Friday, HSJ approached NHSI and the Care Quality Commission after learning that one panel member, CQC deputy chief inspector of hospitals Nigel Acheson, had previously led an inspection of the trust in 2016, which rated it “requires improvement”. A year later, the CQC went back to the trust and rated it “inadequate” with serious safety concerns in maternity.

Families argued this gave him a conflict of interest and claimed other members of the panel, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives, were also conflicted. The RCOG was paid by SATH for a positive report based solely on testimony from the trust and no visit to the hospital site.

In a statement this lunchtime, NHS Improvement announced the panel would be stood down.

Kathy McLean, NHSI medical director, said: “In response to feedback from families, NHS Improvement has decided to stand down the independent review panel. Although the intention had always been for the panel to provide additional scrutiny and support to the wide-ranging review being undertaken by Donna Ockenden, it is clear that its role has prompted concerns, which we hope are now resolved.

“The review remains completely independent and NHS Improvement will ensure that families are given the answers they need and that lessons are learnt.”

Last week, HSJ revealed the creation of the panel, which included officials from NHSI and Dr McLean. Families threatened to take legal action and to withdraw from the Ockenden review.

Expert Donna Ockenden was asked to investigate concerns at SATH by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt in 2017, looking at the avoidable deaths of 23 mothers and babies including Kate Stanton-Davies and baby Pippa Griffiths. The investigation was widened by current health and social care secretary Matt Hancock last year after HSJ revealed more apparent failings. More than 200 cases are believed to be under investigation by the Ockenden team which includes obstetricians, midwives, anaesthetists and neonatologists.

In a statement, Rhiannon Davies and Richard Stanton, the parents of baby Kate who died in 2009, said: “Thanks again to the incredible strength of bereaved families, working in conjunction with respected media, the obstruction of the truth has been prevented.

“The removal of this so-called scrutiny panel is the right decision, the only decision. We can only hope the professionals with whom Donna Ockenden is conducting her review will not have been so grossly insulted by the creation of the panel that they choose to quit.”

In a statement before that decision Ted Baker, CQC’s chief inspector of hospitals, said the watchdog did not believe Dr Acheson was conflicted on the matter.

He said: “Nigel Acheson’s role as chair of CQC’s inspection of SATH in December 2016 was made known to NHS Improvement prior to accepting a place on the Ockendon review panel.

“To carry out their role our staff must demonstrate high standards of professional conduct and impartiality at all times and we do not consider Nigel’s involvement in the review to be a conflict of interest.”

Professor Baker added that the 2016 inspection team included 30 staff and while Dr Acheson chaired the inspection, the final report was written by inspection team leader Debbie Widdowson, who led the team on the ground.

Both the RCOG and RCM rejected claims they were compromised by being members of the panel.

This story was substantially updated on 4 March at 1.10pm after NHS Improvement said the panel was disbanded.