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NHS trust failed to recognise IT whistleblowing

Managers at Southwark CCG did not realise that serious concerns raised by a former nurse of its IT systems should be treated as whistleblowing

A health body did not treat serious concerns raised about its patient management database as a protected “whistleblow” because management already knew about the problems, an employment tribunal heard.

Gwen Kennedy, director of quality and safety at Southwark Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), said she had not realised that even if issues were already known about they should be treated as disclosures under whistleblowing rules, which offer legal protection to whistleblowers.

Southwark is defending a claim for constructive dismissal by former nurse and clinical commissioner Bernie Rochford, who claims she was subject to bullying and intimidation after raising serious concerns over the accuracy of the trust’s patient data.

Concerns over patient database

The trust had relied on a database developed by the husband of one its administrative staff to manage continuing care for patients with serious medical needs. It later emerged that many of the patients on the database were dead and the trust did not know where other patients were or who their GPs were.

Kennedy told a hearing at Croydon employment tribunal centre on 15 September 2015 that the trust had mistakenly failed to acknowledge Rochford’s concerns as a whistleblow. 

“It may have been my naivety or misunderstanding in the area that if matters had already been known and there was management action, considerable management action, then it was not a whistleblow,” said Kennedy.

She told the tribunal that Rochford had raised concerns about “serious safeguarding issues and patients that had died that we did not know about”.

However, she said Rochford had also raised other serious concerns that Kennedy did not agree with and which were unfounded.

Report highlighted database problems

Kennedy told the tribunal that Southwark had recruited Rochford to help improve the clinical commissioning process at Southwark.

“Miss Rochford was asked to look at that and update it so we could have a robust system. Miss Rochford did not do that on her own, there were other colleagues working on the same task,” she said.

Rochford asked if she could write a report about the database problems and Kennedy said she was given protected time to complete the task.

Kennedy rejected suggestions that she was annoyed that Rochford pursued her rights under protected disclosure, under whistleblowing rules. “We did not treat her any differently, we were supporting her,” she said.

Earlier, the tribunal heard that Rochford had been off sick for 208 days over a 12-month period after complaining about her treatment by another member of staff.

An internal report raised concerns that Rochford had been bullied and subjected to abuse by a staff member, but its findings were not upheld by an internal disciplinary hearing with the employee concerned. Rochford did not hear the full outcome of the hearing for 18 months, which created additional stress for her, the tribunal heard.

Kennedy said in the run-up to the then Primary Care Trust becoming a Clinical Commissioning Group as part of the national re-organisation of the NHS, there had been a period of change and stress.

Concerns raised over conduct

Earlier, the CCG’s head of continuing care and safeguarding, Kate Moriarty-Baker, listed concerns about Rochford’s conduct. They had been dealt with “locally”, rather than under a formal procedure, she told the tribunal.

These included Rochford moving to another desk, rather than the one she had been given, which led to Kennedy receiving complaints from “an irate member of the local authority which shared the office.

On another occasion Rochford cancelled an occupational health appointment to attend a GP appointment without asking permission from her line manager. “Management had to go to efforts to secure a different occupational health appointment at a time which would fit in with their meetings,” said Moriarty-Baker.

Rochford had also failed to inform her managers that she did not want to accept redeployment to another position “when managers had changed the timeframe for applying for the post”.

The hearing, which previously met for a week in May, continues.

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