Doctor consulting patient

Government grants major mental health inquiry statutory powers amid engagement issues

The Essex mental health inpatient inquiry will be given statutory powers following difficulties engaging staff, the secretary of state for health and social care, Steve Barclay, has announced.

Chaired by former NHS England mental health director, Dr Geraldine Strathdee, the Essex inquiry was launched in January 2021 to investigate the details surrounding the deaths of mental health inpatients across NHS organisations in Essex between 2000 and 2020.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Barclay commended the “bravery” of the victims and their families before giving a nod to the “assistance” of Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT) during the inquiry.

However, the health secretary also remarked on some of the concerns Dr Strathdee raised to him; chiefly around a lack of engagement from current and former EPUT staff.

In a letter to him in March, Barclay revealed Dr Strathdee said the current level of engagement from staff meant that, in her assessment, she could not adequately conduct the investigation.

Because of this, and further safety concerns raised by the chair, the inquiry has now been made statutory – this will give investigators the power to compel witnesses to give evidence.

The health secretary further announced that a new Health Services Safety Investigations Body will be created this October. The body will immediately start a national investigation into mental health inpatient care settings.

How young people can be better cared for; learnings from tragic deaths; out-of-area placements; and improving staffing models will all be topics of discussion.

The news also comes alongside the government's publication of the findings from the rapid review into mental health inpatient settings, which was also chaired by Dr Strathdee.

The evaluation was set up to explore the opportunities to improve how data and evidence can be used to identify patient safety risks.

More than 300 subject matter experts – including carers, nurses, psychiatrists, clinical directors and those with lived experience – contributed to the report.

“The publication of the rapid review recognises the importance of transparency and accountability as we continue to improve mental health services across the country,” said Maria Caulfield, the minister for mental health.

“Our ongoing work in response to the review will help trusts and facilities identify ways to improve and ensure every patient receives safe, exemplary care.”

Image credit: iStock

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