There is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a bit now…something which as far as I’m aware on my travels in electronic wonderland, has not been written about before. I am in the family of an NHS whistleblower.
In the growing canon surrounding these people - at one turn utterly depressing the next so uplifting - this is one voice which is yet to be heard.
So, what to say? Well firstly, the whistleblower is my Dad, a paediatrician.
How did it all begin? For me it began as a growing realisation that something was wrong. Dad had been working hard for years. By which I mean, working ridiculously insanely hard.
I had left home long ago and only saw him three or four times a year but each time I did he was noticeably more worn, a little more distracted, and deeply, deeply tired. He would often fall asleep halfway through the evening or on weekend afternoons when we were together.
I was worried about him. My siblings and I joked about it sometimes, but we were all worried. Then, the decline accelerated. It came to a head when my Mum turned 60. To celebrate, Mum and Dad took us all away, their children our spouses and their grandchildren to a lovely place in Derbyshire for a few days. We had a great time.
But, Dad…he looked worse than ever. I talked to Mum and suggested he needed to retire early. He had already said he was going to drop some of the more senior management stuff that had been thrust upon him (he’d never really wanted to do this and was only given three hours a week for it - with the next incumbent doing it full-time). To be honest I didn’t know what the hell he was doing. I didn’t care really, I just wanted him to stop.
Shortly afterwards, he phoned me.
“I’ve been sacked as clinical director.” He sounded terrible.
He didn’t fully explain why. At that point I’m not even sure that he knew the real reasons himself. He believed that he would be cleared and receive an apology. He carried on with his clinical work.
And so it began in earnest. We were all pulled into his world. He spoke out again and again (the details are shocking; you may hear more about them shortly in the news). He was investigated internally and cleared; he was suspended from work; he was accused of being deranged and without his knowledge an appointment with a psychiatrist made for him; he was threatened; he was investigated externally and largely exonerated; he was even offered a bribe (through a huge payoff and better pension) if he left immediately and signed a gagging clause.
My Dad withstood it all, and he called them out on every wrong move they made. In the end, they sacked him.
What drove him? What sustained him? Who knows? I sure as hell don’t. I like to think of myself as a good person but I know I would never have trod that path and, if by some bizarre glitch in my moral GPS I had stumbled onto it by accident, I would have taken the money.
He rollercoastered the emotional peaks and troughs. He became properly ill. Still, he dragged himself onwards and we were dragged with him. I’ve no doubt it was worse for Mum than any of us. They’ve been married more than 40 years and they still love each other. She was utterly faithful to him. Not all of us were, completely. Some of us just wanted the whole thing to go away. It was talked about, but he never wavered.
Me? I heard his side of the story, and I raged inside. I imagined humiliation and violence upon his assailants. I read the documents written against him, I wavered. Could it be true? I thought about it long and deep. Was he at fault? He is a man. He is not perfect. If he was in the wrong I would still love him and tell him what I thought.
Then I read some more. More than enough to know that he was in the right. And I know the man himself. He had devoted his life to the care of children. He talked about them constantly. He fought time, and money, and sleep, and other men and women for them. He was away from me and my siblings a lot - part of the reason I never wanted to become a doctor.
Sure, some of this was to earn a living and support us, he had chances to earn much more money though. As important was the part of him that did it for his sick wards. That was always clear to us. As a child I resented it. Overwhelmed by missing him one weekend that he was on call I remember hiding in his car on a Monday morning to go with him to work. When I jumped out from behind the driver’s seat as he parked at the hospital he laughed and took me in. A day with my Dad I’ll never forget.
One of my great heroes and inspirations was the author and conservationist Gerald Durrell. His mentor in the natural world was the Greek scholar and polymath, Theodore Stephanides. When Theo died Gerald said of him: “He could have been a great man in public, but he chose to be a greater man in private”.
This wonderful tribute describes what my Dad has done perfectly. The people who know him best know it. It doesn’t matter that others don’t, but it is my fervent prayer that everything he has fought for concerning the protection of sick children and those who care for them comes to pass.
And what of the things he has fought his battles for? Well, they are yet to be settled but he has a new one. People like him who speak out with an unpalatable message to those in power should be able to do so without fear of any kind. The GMC says it is their duty. The BMA says it will support them. Health ministers have said they are protected. They are not.
I have come to know of many good men and women who have lost money, careers, and partners after whistleblowing. No one with any muscle has lifted a finger to help them properly.
This is a raw injustice. If you asked him he would tell you he only ever did it to try and stop another child being killed by its parent, or a nurse sworn at in public by a target driven manager, or babies put at risk by the way their ward is managed. Those children, their parents, that nurse, and many others, these are the people who those at the wheel of the good ship NHS are letting down by not protecting the whistleblowers who speak up for them. My Dad is one of those whistleblowers.
I am proud of him.
Epilogue: I published this blog on the 11 January this year. Since then the profile of whistleblowers in the NHS landscape has been dramatically transformed by two events. The first was the publishing of the Mid Staffordshire Public Inquiry Report chaired by Robert Francis QC, which has recommended that NHS staff should be subject to a Duty of Candour.
This would require them to speak out where they see problems of patient safety and care in the NHS. This has focused attention on the subject of whistleblowing. The second was the decision by Gary Walker, ex-CEO of the United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust to break cover and flout a gagging agreement he signed when he was sacked, ostensibly for swearing in meetings but (he asserts) actually for complaining about target culture affecting patient safety. This has piled further pressure on Sir David Nicholson (former CEO of the NHS, now head of the Commissioning Board) to resign following criticism that his leadership created a culture which suppressed the airing of these legitimate concerns resulting in the rejection of whistleblowers.
It is an exciting time but it is important it leads to real change so that people like my Dad can speak up for patients and staff and not be victimised.
Read Biggus Diggus’ blog.