A full judicial inquiry to investigate Lucy Letby’s horrific crimes is “on the table”, the Government said on Tuesday as a consultant who first raised the alarm about the killer nurse demanded action against hospital bureaucrats.
Amid calls for bosses at the Countess of Chester Hospital to face charges of corporate manslaughter, Dr Stephen Brearey said NHS managers should face the same level of regulation as clinicians and also backed a judge-led statutory inquiry.
The neonatal consultant said that instead of acting on his warnings, hospital directors victimised doctors as they were more worried about reputational damage.
"Quite often we’ll see senior managers who have no apparent accountability for what they do in our trusts and then move to other trusts, and you worry about their future actions,” Dr Brearey told Radio 4.
Ministers had previously said that a non-statutory inquiry, lacking the power to compel witnesses, would be quicker to examine how the 33-year-old nurse got away with her serial murder of seven babies despite warnings from Dr Brearey and other doctors.
But Rishi Sunak’s spokesman softened Downing Street’s line in response to a barrage of demands from families and clinicians for a judicial probe, after Letby was sentenced on Monday to multiple whole-life jail terms.
The nurse refused to appear at her sentencing, a move dubbed “cowardly” by the Prime Minister. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk vowed to change the law at the “earliest opportunity” to ensure serious offenders are forced to attend and hear from their victims in court.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said on Tuesday Mr Sunak was determined to ensure that “the families get answers, we learn the lessons as well, and it is a very transparent process that everyone can get behind”.
“What will happen next is there will be a chair appointed, the chair will work with the families to look at the terms of reference, discuss the pros and cons of different types of inquiry, and then they will come to a conclusion,” she told Times Radio.
Pressed about whether it should be a statutory inquiry overseen by a judge, Ms Keegan said: “That is something that is on the table… But there are pros and cons to the two types of inquiry, so when the chair works with them on the terms of reference that will be something that they can input to them.”
Asked about why doctors’ warnings were ignored by hospital managers, the minister added: “There will be lots of lessons to learn from the inquiry and that certainly is one, yes.”
The General Medical Council published new guidelines setting out standards of patient care and professional behaviour expected of all clinicians, including on whistleblowing.
But Dr Naru Narayanan, president of the HCSA union of doctors, demanded a new statutory agency to better protect NHS whistleblowers.
An existing NHS system called Freedom to Speak Up Guardians was “more of a tick box exercise rather than having genuine teeth”, he told Sky News.
“There has to be better protection for people who raise concerns, but we see time and again that people who do so face retribution, revenge and retaliation, and they fear for their careers.”