Government to investigate North East Ambulance Service over death 'cover up' claims

Ambulance still from NEAS
The North East Ambulance Service has apologised to families for what it calls 'historical failings' and says it has made changes. Credit: PA

Allegations that an ambulance trust covered up evidence about deaths linked to mistakes made by paramedics will be investigated "more thoroughly" by the Government.

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.

Responding to an urgent question from Labour, the minister told the 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."

Following reports in the Sunday Times newspaper, Wes Streeting MP raised an urgent question in the commons. Credit: PA

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."

The minister said she would be meeting the NEAS, and added: "I also want to meet with the coroner, and we also want to hear from the whistleblowers.

"I am very happy to meet with any member of staff who wants to raise concerns with me so we can get to the bottom of exactly what has happened."

The North East Ambulance Service has apologised to families for what it calls 'historical failings' and says it has made changes.

Helen Ray, chief executive of North East Ambulance Service, said: “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. 

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

“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 continued to act when concerns are raised.

"We have reaudited 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.

“The Care Quality Commission formally responded in late 2020 to confirm they had closed the matter with no further action deemed necessary.

"Northumbria Police, who were involved when a member of staff was dissatisfied with our actions, have also confirmed this matter is closed with no action taken on the basis there was no evidence to support the allegations put to them.

“Many of the cases passed to coroners relate to the timely response of an ambulance to an emergency call.

"It has been widely reported that the delays in reaching patients have become an issue across the country, not just in the North East.

"We are working closely with our commissioners, following a significant investment in our service over the next 12 months, to improve our response performance.”

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