Health Secretary Andy Burnham has told the Birmingham Post he will reconsider the case for a full independent inquiry into the Stafford Hospital scandal.
The new team of Ministers in the Department of Health was looking again at whether a fresh investigation was needed, to uncover the truth about mistakes which may have caused hundreds of deaths.
Former Health Secretary Alan Johnson ruled out a public inquiry shortly after the Healthcare Commission revealed ”shocking” standards of care had put A&E patients at risk. The decision provoked fury among campaigners, who claimed a full public inquiry was essential to determine what had gone wrong.
But Mr Burnham, who took over the health role last month, said he was prepared to consider the issue again.
He would look at whether an inquiry was needed to restore public confidence in the hospital, he said.
The Health Secretary said he was not convinced a full public inquiry was justified but added: “I’m not ruling it out.”
Alternatively, some other form of investigation could be held instead.
Mr Burnham said: “This is an incredibly important issue and one which the new team in the department has taken time to look again at all the issues involved. We have got to ensure that the hospital has the confidence of the public. I’m at the point where I’m just looking at the information I have, and then we’ll in due course say something more about the way forward.
There is a balance here. Key issues are how to improve standards at the hospital, and secondly how to regain public confidence. The best route to improving both those things is the route that should be pursued. A public inquiry would absorb a lot of time and effort. That said, it’s very important there is a process of learning and disclosure at a local level. I’m not ruling it out.”
Other options could include allowing staff to give evidence anonymously.
The Commons Health Committee has called for private hearings where hospital staff could explain how problems became so severe without the trust board knowing about them. It would also provide staff with a chance to explain why they failed to step forward and expose what was going on. Mr Burnham said: “We are not yet in a position to respond but it’s a proposal that deserves serious consideration.”
Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which runs hospitals in Stafford and Cannock, was accused by the Healthcare Commission of making drastic cost-cutting moves to meet financial targets, leading to appalling levels of care. Managers were more concerned with achieving Foundation Trust status than raising standards, the report warned. Between 400 and 1,200 more people died than would have been expected, from 2005 to 2008.
Relatives of patients formed a pressure group to demand full disclosure but ministers asked Professor Sir George Alberti, National Clinical Director for Urgent and Emergency Care, to lead an investigation. Campaigners kept up their call for an independent inquiry.