Jeremy Hunt has delivered his response to the Francis Report. It was as expected: monthly staffing figures on a ward-by-ward basis, minimum standards of safety for staff levels, a national safety website, and further safeguards against ministerial interference in independent regulation.
The centrepiece of Hunt’s statement was the introduction of a ‘statutory duty of candour’ on institutions to report serious failings so that they may be swiftly corrected. As Hunt said, the signal is clear: ‘if in doubt, report an incident and tell the patient’. The penalties of not doing so are severe: Hunt is consulting on whether to reduce hospitals’ indemnity in the event of a slow or partial response to avoidable harm, death or serious injury. There will also be a professional duty of candour to encourage staff to report failings. Recalcitrant staff will be subject to strict sanctions including being struck off; but prompt reports of failings may be seen as a mitigating factor in any subsequent disciplinary hearing. ‘This is not about penalising staff for making mistakes; it is about enabling them to learn from them,’ Hunt said.
Andy Burnham’s response was tepid, as one would expect given the circumstances and Labour’s discomfort on the issue. He limited himself to rather arcane questions about the statutory and professional duties of candour, and the like. Hunt had a little fun exposing Burnham’s hypocrisy on the value of mandatory staff levels (Burnham told the Mid Staffs inquiry in 2011: ‘I just think it would be completely to go against the grain of what was trying to be achieved if we were trying to tell every organisation in the NHS how many physiotherapists it should employ, how many nurses it should employ.’); but Hunt was wise to the fact that this was not a time for knockabout.