'A national disgrace' - answers demanded after probe reveals shocking claims against North East Ambulance Service

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MPs have demanded an immediate investigation into claims of “gross negligence, cover-ups and tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money offered in exchange for staff silence” by NHS chiefs in the North East.

According to the Sunday Times newspaper, the North East Ambulance Service (NEAS) has covered up damning evidence about deaths linked to mistakes by paramedics.

It claims there are more than 90 cases where managers at NEAS have prevented relatives from knowing the full truth about how their loved ones died.

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Concerns have also been raised about evidence handed over to coroners by the NEAS during inquest proceedings.

North East Ambulance Service North East Ambulance Service
North East Ambulance Service

And in some instances, it is understood bereaved families only became aware of potential issues after being contacted by journalists.

Speaking in the House of Commons, after being granted permission to ask an Urgent Question following the Sunday Times's report, Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “Record ambulance waits exist in every part of the country, with heart attack and stroke victims waiting longer than an hour for an ambulance.

“As for [NEAS], they are advising the public to phone a friend or call a cab rather than wait, while presiding over gross negligence, cover-ups and taxpayer-funded gagging orders on staff.

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North East Ambulance Service chief Helen Ray.North East Ambulance Service chief Helen Ray.
North East Ambulance Service chief Helen Ray.

“This is the record on their watch, it is a national disgrace.

"What is the Government doing about it?”

Responding, Maria Caulfield, Minister for Patient Safety and Primary Care, said she would be willing to meet families affected, as well as whistleblowers, and promised to investigate “thoroughly”.

Sunderland Central MP Julie Elliott accused NEAS of “making mistakes for decades” and urged the government to “get a grip of this for the people of the population for the North East”.

In a statement released following the publication of the Sunday Times’s investigation, NEAS’s medical director, Dr Mathew Beattie, admitted the service had been made aware of staff concerns as early as 2019 and had started an “internal review”.

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Bosses later commissioned two “external and independent investigations” which both recommended improvements.

The findings of these were passed to regulators NHS England and the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

A later governance review which examined 416 coroners’ cases over an 18-month period to December 2020 found “no significant issues”.

However, an external audit of “coronial processes” has uncovered “minor issues”.

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On claims of gagging orders used to silence potential whistleblowers, NEAS said it would not “discuss the content or confirm the existence of specific agreements”.

NEAS chief executive Helen Ray insisted she and the organisation “unreservedly [apologised] for the distress” caused to families.

She added: “We accept that there were historical failings and we have listened and acted upon the concerns raised by staff of the quality and timeliness of documents disclosed to coroners.

"As a result, we made changes to our governance processes.

“And as a learning organisation, we commissioned two external and independent investigations to identify areas where we could make further improvements.

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“In the spirit of openness and transparency, we also notified our regulators NHS England and the Care Quality Commission of these concerns and provided them with details of our actions to address the issues.

“It is always disappointing to have to report such issues, but we will always encourage our staff to report their concerns, we will listen and we will act as is needed.”