The Oxford NUJ branch is blowing the whistle on NHS England for its lack of transparency and its attempts to frustrate efforts to hold it to account for its decision relating to the future of Oxfordshire’s diagnostic cancer scanning services.
The question we are asking is this:
Why is NHS England being so secretive about the basis for its decision regarding the future of Oxfordshire’s PET-CT diagnostic imaging services? What is the basis for its decision to take this service away from the world-class radiology team at the Churchill hospital, where it operates as an integrated part of a world-class cancer care service? Why has NHS England awarded preferred bidder status to a private company that operates from mobile units, and has no-one with a licence to administer the radioactive substances used in PET-CT?
This are questions that should normally be posed by reporters, and our local journalists are certainly doing their best to get answers. It is a question also for Oxfordshire’s Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which is empowered to ‘call-in’ questionable decisions made by our public healthcare services, and they too have been doing their best to get answers.
Our NUJ branch got involved because we are alarmed at the lengths to which NHS England seems to be prepared to go to avoid being scrutinised and held to account for this decision. It has not addressed questions of substance relating to the impact the change to the service will have on the quality and safety of patient care. It seems intent on stifling those who seek to voice their concerns, and withholding information that the public has a right to know.
The Oxford NUJ branch is saying that it is not OK for public bodies to hide behind legal threats, to seek to silence critics or to create a climate of fear in public bodies.
We took the unusual step of calling a public meeting in Oxford Town Hall to try to build up a picture of what is going on. We posted the speakers’ presentation on our YouTube channel. You can view the full playlist here. Video recordings are courtesy of Peter McIntyre.
What they said
We invited Professor Adrian Harris, a consultant medical oncologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, to tell us the story so far from the perspective of those currently running the service at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust (OUHT).
Adrian explained that the quality of PET-CT scans matters because they change treatment decision in up 40% of cases. Referring to correspondence from NHS England, he argue they had built their case on “incorrect data to force the issue to allow InHealth to come in and disrupt an outstanding service,” and that they were blocking access to key information by claiming there were “discussions” and a “legal review” that do not exist.
“NHS England have not told the truth, they have put legal pressure on doctors, they don’t reply to emails, when corrected in things they don’t respond and the role of Bruno [Dr Bruno Holthof is Chief Executive Officer of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust] in not taking us through what the doctors say, what the Trust wants to do, passing on messages very worrying to me. We have to have an open access. How can we have an explanation, not only just from NHS England but the local Trust leaders as to why they are behaving like that?”
You can see his full presentation here (11 mins)
We also invited Tamsin Allen, a partner at Bindmans law firm who specialises in defamation law and has long experience representing whistleblowers, to comment on the legal issues.
Tamsin talked about the letter NHS England’s lawyers had sent to the OUHT, warning them that any statement that suggests that the result of awarding the contract to InHealth puts patient safety at risk or compromises the provision of cancer care and research in the health system “would be defamatory if repeated to any third party”.
“That’s an incredibly broad and sweeping claim, and it’s also legally wrong,” said Tamsin. She questioned a later clarification from NHS England that the letter had been intended as helpful advice regarding possible defamation suits from others, rather than a direct threat. “Lawyers are used to using language precisely particularly when talking about the law. That was a deliberate sentence. It’s an intimidating statement.”
You can view her presentation here (14 mins)
We also invited Seamus Dooley, the Assistant General Secretary of the NUJ, to talk about the role of a strong local press in championing the public interest by scrutinising the behaviour of those in charge of our public services.
“This is not about the law. This is about bullying and unacceptable behaviour. From the NUJ’s perspective, we are under no doubt that what this is intended is to have a chilling effect which inhibits debate and inhibits questions. It is about the use of law to close down debate. Does it mean journalists will stop asking questions? I hope not.”
You can view his presentation here (5 mins).
The meeting was chaired by Anna Wagstaff, Secretary of the Oxford and District NUJ branch. In her opening remarks she said, “This is behaviour you could maybe expect from a tobacco company but not from our health service. We’d like this to be a practical meeting focused on how we can bring some accountability and transparency to this process to ensure decision are made in the best interests of the public that the NHS is meant to serve.”
You can view her presentation here (2 mins)
You can see the Banbury Guardian’s report (26 June 2019) on their battle to get access to the relevant correspondence between NHS England and the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust here.
You can see the Oxford Mail report of the meeting here