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NHS whistleblower Peter Duffy threatens trust with legal action in row over alleged email tampering

NHS whistleblower warns his former employer of potential litigation over a dispute concerning allegations of email tampering

Legal representatives acting for whistleblower and former clinician Peter Duffy, 61, have sent a pre-action letter to the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT), following a dispute over the authenticity of emails Duffy was alleged to have sent.

Duffy, who worked as a consultant surgeon and head of department at the trust, alleges that two emails, purportedly sent from his UHMBT staff account in December 2014, were “backdated” to appear as if they had been sent by him.

The trust, however, has maintained there is no convincing evidence to support his claims.

Duffy, who lost his job in 2016 after exposing widespread harm at the trust’s urology unit, faced investigation for more than two years over the emails’ contents before the General Medical Council watchdog (GMC) found there was no case to answer in May 2023. 

The GMC concluded that, among other factors that prevented it from bringing forward a case against the surgeon, “the deletion of Mr Duffy’s inbox” meant it was not possible to interrogate his email history.

Duffy’s solicitors have now written to UHMBT demanding full disclosure of evidence relating to the two emails in question, which he said has been withheld to date.

Long-running dispute

The emails concerned the care of the late Peter Read, a 76-year-old man from Morecambe, who died of a stroke brought on by urosepsis in January 2015, following a string of healthcare errors at UHMBT.

Those emails, Duffy said, may have left him open to clinical negligence and potentially medical manslaughter charges.

The disputed messages, which first surfaced in 2020 during the course of an investigation into UHMBT’s urology services, are at the centre of a long-running dispute between Duffy and the trust.

The trust said it and external organisations that have reviewed the matter have found no evidence of the IT record tampering that Duffy alleges.

A clinician he had previously worked with, and had blown the whistle on, at UHMBT ’s urology unit, initially put forward copies of the emails as evidence to the GMC.

GMC investigation

Forensic experts told Computer Weekly that full electronic disclosure of the emails and related digital records would be needed to adequately determine whether any falsification or tampering had taken place, as Duffy alleges. 

A 30-page decision letter concluding the GMC’s investigation into Duffy raised questions around the email evidence.

The GMC highlighted an “anomaly” that one of the two emails in question, dated 29 December 2014, “appeared” in the inbox of a senior clinical manager at UHMBT “three days before it was sent”. Duffy and Read’s family believe this discrepancy has not yet been adequately accounted for.

Karen Beamer, the late Read’s daughter, told Computer Weekly that full disclosure of the email evidence is now crucial, given they formed the basis of the GMC’s years-long probe into Duffy and questions remain as to their authenticity.

According to UHMBT, the emails were only discovered in 2020, when it upgraded its IT systems to Microsoft 365, which offered more advanced search capabilities.

Email discovery

The trust did not find the emails when a tribunal judge ordered the disclosure of all communications relating to Read’s care during a 2018 employment tribunal hearing.

UHMBT combed through some 3,000 emails for the 2018 hearing that considered Duffy’s constructive dismissal claim against the trust.

“Peter Duffy has never been given a chance to prove his innocence, which is vital to a long-standing consultant within the healthcare system who has been treating his patients with exceptional skill, kindness and understanding,” said Beamer.

Sue Allison, a former whistleblower at UHMBT, resigned from the trust’s elected council of governors in May, due to what she described as a bullying culture and a lack of change at UHMBT since she reported patient safety concerns at its breast screening clinic a decade ago.

She said Duffy’s claims have had to be pursued through the courts because oversight structures in the trust and wider health service had failed at UHMBT.

“Part of the reason this has had to go through the courts is because the trust’s and health service’s own oversight structures have failed to pick up vital care issues,” she said.

Governors suspended

Allison told Computer Weekly she had been seeking answers over the disputed emails prior to stepping down earlier in the year.

Shortly after she resigned, two other governors that had asked questions about the disputed emails were also suspended. UHMBT, however, maintains that the governors were not suspended for seeking answers to questions over the disputed emails.

The pair remain suspended pending the outcome of an investigation “into the[ir] conduct and behaviours”, in the words of the trust’s chair, Mike Thomas.

The significance of whistleblowing in the health service has been brought into sharp relief by the fallout of the case of Lucy Letby, a neonatal NHS nurse who was convicted in August of having murdered seven babies and having attempted to kill six more at an NHS trust in Cheshire.

Read more about email evidence in NHS whistleblowing disputes

Another trust in North-West England, Bolton NHS Foundation Trust, has also been downgraded by regulators during this time, owing to whistleblowing concerns and alleged divisions between trust executives and its council of governors.

UHMBT told Computer Weekly that an investigation into the two suspended governors is ongoing.

Paul Jones, UHMBT’s company secretary, said: “Following complaints about the behaviour of two of our public governors, and a request to act, the Chair suspended the two public governors from their duties in accordance with our Foundation Trust Constitution.

“An independent fact-finding investigation is underway into the conduct and behaviours of the two public governors, and they have been invited to be part of the process,” he said. “It would be inappropriate to comment further on this investigation whilst it is ongoing.

“The investigation is in its final stages, and once completed, the report will be presented to the Council of Governors to decide as to whether there is a case to answer that requires any further action.”

The trust said it was unable to comment further for legal reasons.

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