Proposal to provide a ‘safe space’ in healthcare safety investigations

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The Department of Health is consulting on a proposal to legislate for ‘safe space’ arrangements in NHS investigations, which could see relevant information being withheld from patients and their families harmed by lapses in patient safety.

The proposal is to extend arrangements in place for the new Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch to withhold information from patients and families – even when it directly relates to what happened in their treatment – to all NHS safety investigations. The consultation asks whether this should be phased in, potentially starting with maternity cases.

Whether phased in or not, this would mean that local NHS trusts investigating their own serious incidents would be able to withhold relevant information from patients and families if they believed this was important for providing a ‘safe space’ for health professionals, so that they could provide evidence without fear of blame or serious consequences.

We believe the proposal to be misguided and very dangerous. We fully support initiatives to protect all staff including whistleblowers from inappropriate or disproportionate blame from employers or regulators, which is what they tell us they most fear. However, allowing the covering up of the full truth about what happens in patients’ treatment from them or their family is unethical and in direct contradiction to the NHS Constitution and the statutory Duty of Candour brought in just two years ago.

There is an obvious conflict of interest in allowing NHS trusts who are investigating themselves to use the ‘safe space’ principle as an excuse to hide the truth about their treatment from patients. If it were to go ahead this proposal amounts to state legitimisation of cover ups.

This consultation closed on 16th December 2016. An announcement from the Department of Health is expected in January 2017.