There has been yet more embarrassment for the NHS as it emerged in official documents that over £4m of public money has been spent on gagging orders. This has led Sir David Nicholson, who is soon to finish as head of the National Health Service, to deny reports that NHS officials had been deliberately covering up the number of gagging orders.
A few months ago, Nicholson, whose tenure as head of the NHS is nearly over, declared that he had not personally been aware of any gagging orders and added that he believed it was an isolated incident in contrast to the accusations of a ‘systemic cover up’ that had been levelled at the NHS.
It has since come to light though that multiple orders existed and the Department of Health has been forced to admit that gagging orders have been used over the last 4 years by NHS Trusts and other associated bodies in order to prevent over 130 staff from speaking out.
The number of such orders now being quoted is double the figure which NHS Trusts had previously quoted after a request was put in for such information under the Freedom of Information Act. Indeed, it was only after months of pressure from MPs that the statistics were given to the public accounts committee for analysis. A member of this committee admitted his shock at hearing the head of the NHS pass of the orders as ‘a one off’ and added that patients and staff had been endangered by the widespread use of the orders.
Perhaps the most concerning thing of all is that we simply cannot predict how many patients may have come to preventable harm due to NHS care failures being covered up. Furthermore, most taxpayers will agree that this constitutes a gross misuse of public money in times of austerity.
Whereas normal gagging orders require some kind of approval from a higher authority, these orders do not require the final say of the Treasury or the Department of Health which means that the government is unable to stop an order going through if it is not deemed acceptable.
The government stresses that this is no longer an issue but orders which have already been implemented will not be subject to government review.
It is though that nearly 80 trusts have made use of such orders with the price reaching just short of £4m. The news is just another in a long line of recent National Health Service scandals, starting with the revelations about appalling mistreatment and neglect of patients at the Stafford Hospital over a 3 year period ending in 2008.
Similar uproar was caused in March when it was found that close to £15m had been spend by NHS trusts in order to keep staff quiet. However, these figures did not account for cases with judicial mediation, whereby hospitals and staff reach settlements which are then approved by a judge or high profile lawyer.
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