Further investigation for ambulance trust over deaths ‘cover-up’ claims linked to paramedic mistakes

An ambulance trust faces further investigation over allegations it covered up evidence about deaths linked to mistakes made by paramedics, the Government has said.

Health minister Maria Caulfield told MPs she was “horrified” to read the claims about the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) in The Sunday Times.

It was reported that concerns were raised about more than 90 cases, with the paper saying whistleblowers believed NEAS had prevented relatives from knowing the full details about how their loved ones died in 2018 and 2019.

Ms Caulfield pledged to meet the families affected, the ambulance trust and the coroner, and said she wanted to hear from the whistleblowers.

MPs from the region labelled NEAS “dysfunctional” and described its record as “absolutely shocking”, as they pressed for the Government to get to the bottom of the “cover-up”.

NEAS chief executive Helen Ray has offered an apology to the families for the distress caused to them and highlighted reviews which have taken place into “historical failings”.

Ms Caulfield (pictured), responding to an urgent question from Labour, told the House of Commons: “My thoughts are first and foremost with the families affected by the tragic events described.

“I cannot imagine the distress they’re going through and it’s hard enough to lose a loved one suddenly.

“But to have fears that mistakes were made that could have made a difference and, more than that, the facts of what happened were not revealed in every case, goes further.

“They have my unreserved sympathy and support.”

Ms Caulfield said non-disclosure agreements have “no place in the NHS”, adding: “Reputation management is never more important than patient safety.”

She went on: “I note the concerns raised in this weekend’s reports and they’ve been subject to thorough review at trust level, including through an external investigation, and the trust’s coronial reporting is subject to ongoing independent external audit and quarterly review by an executive director.

“I also note the CQC has been closely involved.

“However, given the seriousness of the claims reported over the weekend we will, of course, be investigating more thoroughly, and will not hesitate to take any action necessary and appropriate to protect patients.”

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting asked: “Why did the CQC fail to spot this, rating the service good in 2018, and failing to spot it even after being tipped off in 2020?

“Why is taxpayers’ money still being offered to buy the silence of staff when non-disclosure agreements were supposedly banned in 2014? And what role did under-resourcing and under-staffing play in this scandal?”

He added: “Record ambulance waits exist in every part of the country, with heart attack and stroke victims waiting longer than an hour for an ambulance.

“As for the North East Ambulance Service, they are advising the public to phone a friend or call a cab rather than wait, while presiding over gross negligence, cover-ups and taxpayer-funded gagging orders on staff.

“This is the record on their watch, it is a national disgrace. What is the Government doing about it?”

Ms Caulfield said the Government takes patient safety “extremely seriously”, adding in reply to Labour: “I am very happy to meet with all the families affected by this, to hear about their concerns and the actions that they want to see taken.”

Conservative Richard Holden (North West Durham) said: “Those bereaved families really have a right to know … but it’s also crucial to know so we can get to the bottom of this and prevent it from ever happening again.”

Labour’s Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) said NEAS has been “dysfunctional for years now” while party colleague Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) said: “This cover-up totally stinks.”

Conservative Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland) spoke of the “absolutely shocking record” of NEAS as she called for assurances that the “department will investigate NEAS’s failures fully and rapidly to ensure that no more lives are needlessly lost.”

Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “Everyone makes mistakes in the course of their work, what is unforgivable is the cover-up by North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) and the fact that we made (their) families go through such hell in order to get to the truth about what happened.”

Ms Ray said in a statement issued by NEAS: “These reports are difficult to read, but we had a number of historical issues with our systems and processes which meant we needed to fully revise and review our reporting mechanisms.

“Utmost in our mind are the families and we unreservedly apologise for the distress we have caused to them.”

Ms Ray detailed the reviews, adding: “I want to reassure you that the claims made that we continue to fail in respect of disclosure are incorrect.

“A member of staff does continue to have concerns but we have re-audited our process, have discussed with coroners and with the CQC and have embedded regular reviews to ensure these issues cannot reoccur.

“We are confident that the system in place is robust.”

She added: “In summary, we accept that there were historical failings and we have listened and acted upon the concerns raised by staff of the quality and timeliness of documents disclosed to coroners.

“As a result, we made changes to our governance processes.

“And as a learning organisation, we commissioned two external and independent investigations to identify areas where we could make further improvements.”

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