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Northern Ireland’s health minister has said there was a “sustained failure of care” at Muckamore Abbey Hospital.
Robin Swann was speaking after a review of leadership and governance at the hospital was published by the Department of Health on Wednesday.
Allegations of physical and mental abuse of patients began to emerge in 2017 and there have been seven arrests.
Belfast Health Trust’s Chief Executive Dr Cathy Jack accepted the findings and expressed her “deep sense of shame”.
“Some of the most vulnerable people who were entrusted to our care were harmed and maltreated and I am truly sorry,” she told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme.
“We betrayed the trust of patients and their families and we failed them.”
The hospital provides facilities for adults with severe learning disabilities and mental health needs and is run by the Belfast Trust.
In addition to the seven arrests since October 2019, there have been 59 precautionary suspensions of staff, but no-one has been charged.
Mr Swann said he is to establish an inquiry into what happened at Muckamore.
“This was a sustained failure of care, affecting some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” the health minister said.
“Patients and families have been let down and I want to apologise to them on behalf of the health and social care system.”
The review said a prior investigation into allegations of abuse represented a “missed opportunity”.
Systems to protect against risks to safe and effective care were not implemented properly and senior staff did not use their discretion to escalate matters, it said.
The review found that the Belfast Trust Board and Executive Team rarely discussed Muckamore Abbey Hospital and that the focus of trust leadership was on resettlement targets.
Dr Jack, who took up her post as chief executive in January 2020, said she welcomed the review’s publication and apologised unreservedly to patients and their families who had been failed by the trust.
“It is clear there were serious failings in leadership and ineffective escalation of serious matters at Muckamore, despite appropriate governance structures,” she said.
Environment ‘Rigorous processes’
“This contributed to an environment which enabled the serious maltreatment of vulnerable people to go unnoticed for so long. This is a matter of profound regret and for that I am deeply sorry.”
The review was commissioned to build upon the serious adverse incident review (SAI) into the hospital.
It confirmed the SAI conclusions that the hospital was viewed as a “place apart” which operated “outside the sightlines and under the radar of the trust”.
Dr Jack said there were now “rigorous processes” in place to ensure the safe care of patients, and that a culture of openness between staff and families was encouraged.
The report also detailed challenges and tensions within the management team at the County Antrim hospital, a lack of continuity and stability at director level, and “a lack of interest and curiosity” about Muckamore Abbey Hospital from the Trust’s Board.
The review team found that CCTV cameras were operational in the hospital from 2015, but it took “an inexplicably long time” to produce a policy to implement CCTV in the hospital.
The health minister said the patients and their families deserved “much more” than apologies – that they needed answers, and confidence that what happened at Muckamore would never happen again.
Dr Jack said there had been many “significant” improvements and the trust was confident Muckamore Abbey Hospital was “a much safer place today”.
Environment ‘Comprehensive and damning’
Anne Blake, whose son was a patient in Muckamore, said she was “pleasantly surprised by the report” which was “very comprehensive”.
“They did have a lot of criticism for the top people from the board right down, which is something we, as parents, were very concerned about,” she said.
“Unfortunately, Minister Swann has said he will look at this and there will be an inquiry, he doesn’t say a public inquiry which is something we are looking for.”
She added: “This report is showing everything that didn’t come out before and I’m pleased about that.”
Another parent, Glynn Brown, said the report was “extremely damning”.
“It’s important that he [Robin Swann] fulfils his written commitment to all the parents.
“It’s only a full public inquiry will compel people to attend and give the proper evidence,” he said.