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Defensive denial won’t save the NHS—Roger Kline’s blog

Roger Kline, 19 February 2013

Last week a paramedic was suspended for posting a threatening message to Julie Bailey, the best known of member of Cure the NHS, the campaigning group of relatives of victims of the Mid Staffordshire scandal. Julie and colleagues have previously had death threats and regular abuse.

In response to their tireless campaigning, which led to the public inquiry chaired by Robert Francis, QC, which reported earlier this month, a group of NHS staff have set up a Facebook group called 'We support the front line staff at Stafford Hospital'. I looked at another Facebook group who published a picture of Julie’s café with the caption “I believe that it is this one” in the middle of abusive comments. Friends have commented that, more generally, significant numbers of NHS staff appear to have become defensive about the criticism from whistleblowers and patients organisations.

I have spent many years criticising poor care in some parts of the NHS as well as resolutely defending the NHS against those who would break it up and privatise it. As a trade union official in the health care sector, I have probably represented several hundred individual NHS staff, as well as supporting numerous collective grievances and campaigns on behalf of NHS staff trying to do their very best in difficult circumstances.

In particular I have represent whistleblowers in social care and health who have made a courageous decision – often at great personal cost – to raise concerns about the care patients and service users receive. In my book, trade unionists (whose families are patients anyway) should, when appropriate, criticise poor care and its causes as well as standing up for good care and the conditions that encourage it.

I recognise that there are those who find criticism of some aspects of the NHS uncomfortable. Some NHS leaders simply circle the wagons and repeatedly victimise those who do raise concerns. I have worked with brilliant whistleblowers whose sole motive was to protect patients and “do the right thing”.

In almost every single case the timeline is the same: Raise a concern. Be surprised when instead of being welcomed, the response is denial, isolation and harassment, often very subtle. Then watch as the employer finds fault with some real or imaginary aspect of the whistleblower’s work. Then shout with dismay as their employer suspends them and disciplines them.

The files of Patients First and Public Concern at Work are full of such histories which generally end with a compromise agreement as an alternative to being sacked but with the condition of a gagging clause.

I accept that there are those who may jump on the criticism of the NHS that many of the whistleblowers’ stories provoke as reasons to privatise it. My response is that unless we are open about our shortcomings we will never be able to conquer them. In particular, unless we change the bullying culture and resource the service properly, unless we create a culture where staff are valued as an asset not simply harassed as a cost, we are in deep trouble. Unless we create an open culture where staff and patient concerns and complaints are welcomed, we will not improve the shortcomings Francis uncovered in Stafford.

It is all the more astonishing therefore when, rather than welcoming the courageous stand made by Julie Bailey and her group of relatives of former patients of Stafford Hospital, some people have turned against her in a very nasty way. The message that prompted the suspension of the paramedic read "Julie Bailey, I hope you suffer a life threatening illness at night where you have to travel furthur [sic] than you should do because your local hospital is closed (your fault)".

So let’s get is straight. Mindless criticism of the NHS from those who would privatise it is one thing. We should have no truck with it. Serious criticism from whistleblowers and others, allied to determined attempts to improve matters, is quite another. If some health service staff find that difficult, not least because many of them are struggling with heavy workloads in a bullying environment, then we should engage in constructive discussion. But personal attacks are out of bounds.

If we don’t all take this opportunity to serious scrutinise the culture, leadership, management and resourcing of the NHS now, we risk losing the opportunity for a generation. If that happens. the enemies of the NHS will have won.

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