Call for independent health regulation in Northern Ireland

A doctor who blew the whistle on unsafe practices during the Baby P abuse scandal has said Northern Ireland needs an independent health regulator.

Dr Kim Holt made the call after another whistle-blower raised concerns about care at Cherry Tree House nursing home in Carrickfergus, County Antrim.

The whistle-blower, who is a former care worker at the home, claims that for almost eight years the owner of Cherry Tree House, the Northern Health and Social Care Trust and the RQIA ignored her claims.

On hearing her story, Dr Holt has said that health care staff in Northern Ireland should be able to report to someone who is completely independent of the health service.

“It’s really crucial that the regulator is independent of the Department of Heath and it’s clear from this story that there’s a real issue in Northern Ireland,” Dr Holt said.

“We’re seeing the beginning of something positive in England with more independence from our regulator, so I definitely see that it would be important for Northern Ireland.”

Dr Holt was the medic who raised concerns about unsafe hospital practices at the London clinic where Peter Connolly, known as Baby P, was treated days before his death in August 2007.

The toddler died at his home in Tottenham, north London, with more than 50 injuries, despite being on a social services “at-risk” register.

Two days earlier, a locum who treated baby Peter at St Ann’s community paediatric unit in Haringey, north London, missed tell-tale signs that the 17-month-old was being abused.

Baby Peter’s mother, Tracey Connolly, her boyfriend Steven Barker and Barker’s brother, Jason Owen, were all convicted and jailed for their role in the toddler’s death.

But months before the child was examined, Dr Holt, a consultant paediatrician, had warned her managers that staff shortages and poor record-keeping at St Ann’s Hospital would lead to problems.

After losing her job over the Baby P case, Dr Holt was responsible for setting up Patients First, a lobby group that aims to improve patient safety.

She also campaigns nationally on behalf of whistle-blowers and she said that becoming a whistle-blower can have a serious impact on a person’s life.

“Personally, there is an emotional impact with high levels of stress and anxiety and it can lead to depression,” Dr Holt said.

“Some people have reported that they have even felt pushed to the point of suicide.

“Professionally they risk losing their post, they are often suspended, they may go off on sick leave which then impacts on their career, even be sacked.

“And then in the wider network, there is the impact on the family and friendships, so it’s actually devastating for a lot of people.”

Speaking about the Cherry Tree House whistle-blower, Dr Holt said: “To persist over many years is extremely courageous and I totally understand the toll that it must have taken on her.

“It shouldn’t be courageous, it should just be part of normal everyday work but at the moment, unfortunately, to blow the whistle in Northern Ireland you need to be courageous.”