Health secretary, Steve Barclay, has named Lady Justice Thirlwall as the chair of the independent inquiry into the crimes committed by former Countess of Chester Hospital nurse, Lucy Letby.
The inquiry was given statutory powers last week and will be led by one of the country’s most senior judges, who currently sits on the Court of Appeal.
The announcement came during Barclay’s speech in the House of Commons, where he also announced that the chair of the Essex mental health inquiry will be Baroness Lampard, who investigated the crimes of Jimmy Saville in a similar inquiry led by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
Lucy Letby's crimes are some of the very worst the UK has seen.— Steve Barclay (@SteveBarclay) September 4, 2023
I hope Lady Justice Thirlwall's inquiry will go at least some way towards giving victims' families the answers they deserve.
We will ensure the lessons from this horrendous case are learned.
My statement today 👇 pic.twitter.com/dFP894Gm4h
The rest of the health secretary’s address centred around patient safety and what the government has done, is doing and will do.
Barclay drew attention to the appointment of Dr Aidan Fowler as NHS England’s first ever national director of patient safety in 2018, and thus the following patient safety strategy in 2019.
If implemented correctly, NHS England believes the strategy can save around 1,000 extra lives a year along with £100m in care costs – a goal that, as of June 2023, the health service is halfway to achieving.
Tom Kark KC’s 2018 review into how the health service evaluates board members was also highlighted, with its findings being incorporated into the new fit and proper person test framework, which was released last month.
After turning to what the government is currently doing to improve patient safety, the health secretary underlined his department's past consideration of the review’s fifth recommendation – i.e., the power to disbar directors for serious misconduct.
The recommendation was not initially implemented as the government believed that taking on Kark’s wider proposals mitigated its need – following recent events, Barclay has now asked the DHSC to “revisit this” with NHS England.
The speech moved onto the “strengthened” freedom to speak up policy all NHS trusts in England will have adopted by January.
“This national model policy will bring consistency to freedom to speak up across organisations providing NHS services, supporting staff to feel more confident to speak up and raise any concerns,” said Barclay.
“I have asked NHS England to review the guidance that permits Board Members to be Freedom to Speak Up Guardians, to ensure these roles provide independent challenge to boards.”
The health secretary also announced that the government is “exploring” introducing Martha’s Rule to the UK – Ryan’s rule, a similar system in Australia, has helped save lives, according to Barclay.
He said: “It’s a three-step process that allows patients or their families to request a clinical review of their case from a doctor or nurse if their condition is deteriorating or not improving as expected.”
“He continued: “Ryan’s Rule has saved lives in Queensland, and I’ve asked my department and the NHS to look into whether similar measures could improve patient safety here in the UK.”
Before commending his speech, the health secretary concluded: “My department and I are committed to putting in place robust safeguards to protect patient safety, and to make sure the lessons from this horrendous case are fully learned.”
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