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Thirlwall Inquiry: Nurse whistleblowers apply to give evidence

Hundreds of nursing and midwifery whistleblowers have applied to contribute to the inquiry into Lucy Letby’s murders, specifically to give evidence about raising safety concerns in the NHS.

NHS Whistleblowers, a dedicated support group made up of current and former nurses, midwives and doctors, has written to Lady Justice Thirlwall, asking to be formally included as core participants in the inquiry.

“Lessons have clearly not been learned and we feel it is imperative that this group be involved in the Thirlwall Inquiry”

Rachel Di Clemente

Letby was given a whole-life sentence last year after she was found guilty of murdering seven babies and attempting to murder six others while she worked as a neonatal nurse at the Countess of Chester Hospital between June 2015 and June 2016.

Following her conviction in August last year, the Thirlwall Inquiry was set up to investigate how Letby was able to murder and harm multiple babies.

It will also examine the wider NHS culture and effectiveness of management, and how the Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust dealt with concerns raised about Letby.

NHS Whistleblowers, which includes groups such as NMCWatch and Justice for Doctors, has argued that its members should be able to give evidence to the inquiry about speaking up in the NHS.

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The call comes as several of its members have raised patient safety concerns within their own organisations and some have been dismissed or resigned as a result.

NHS Whistleblowers said it could evidence how whistleblowers were subjected to “victimisation and persecution” and were often referred to regulators, including the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), for raising concerns.

The group has instructed Hudgell Solicitors to represent them, and the application to the Thirlwall Inquiry has been made.

Cathryn Watters, founder and director of NMCWatch, which represents nearly 600 nurses and midwives, said: “Many of our group have been whistleblowers or have raised serious concerns in their workplace to find they are referred on spurious grounds, often with no basis or evidence of minor issues that could have been dealt with at employer level.

“We feel that the fitness to practise process is being weaponised to silence whistleblowers and to punish those who have continued to escalate concerns.

“Healthcare regulators must get better skills to unpick this and assure further patient harm is not being risked in pursuit of such cases.”

During Letby’s trial, the court heard that concerns were raised multiple times about the former neonatal nurse, but that these were ignored by hospital managers.

At the time of the trial, the NHS ombudsman warned that there was a “defensive leadership culture” in the health service, which prevented staff from being able to raise concerns about colleagues.

Rachel Di Clemente, chief executive of Hudgell Solicitors, said: “Since the Francis report in 2015, following the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust Public Inquiry, there has been a series of investigations into NHS trusts around patient safety, where it has been revealed NHS staff have either been too scared to speak up or punished for speaking up.

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“Lessons have clearly not been learned and we feel it is imperative that this group be involved in the Thirlwall Inquiry, particularly to help examine whether suspicions could have been raised earlier, whether Letby should have been suspended earlier and how the management responded to concerns raised about her.

“The evidence of this group relating to how whistleblowers are treated, not just at one trust, but across the UK, is of huge significance,” she said.

Representatives of the Thirlwall Inquiry told Nursing Times that they would not comment on individual applications.

However, they confirmed that the inquiry would consider the effectiveness of NHS management and governance structures, as well as NHS culture.

Letby is to face a retrial later this year on an attempted murder charge relating to one baby.

Separately, a renewed application by the former neonatal nurse to appeal her convictions is due to be heard in court next month.

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