GMB calls for an independent inquiry into South East Coast Ambulance Trust

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CHARLES HARRITY senior GMB organiser for Surrey, Sussex and Kent speaking at the ATUA conference on the struggle against privatisation of the Ambulance service
CHARLES HARRITY senior GMB organiser for Surrey, Sussex and Kent speaking at the ATUA conference on the struggle against privatisation of the Ambulance service

‘HEADS of the managers responsible must roll,’ the GMB union insisted yesterday after South East Coast Ambulance (SECAmb) Trust claimed that bullying allegations are ‘unsubstantiated and historic’ and that they had been ‘dealt with’.

The GMB called for an independent government-led inquiry into South East Coast Ambulance Trust’s alleged bullying. The bullying resulted in some staff considering suicide, says the GMB. Gary Palmer, GMB regional organiser, said yesterday: ‘The initial investigation into events at Coxheath Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), which clearly highlights a terrible series of events around management bullies and their treatment of staff, resulted in some staff considering suicide.

‘To have that compounded by their employer then not seeking to protect them and punish those named in the report as being directly involved or complicit in supporting it, is nothing short of disgraceful. Claims by the ambulance Trust that they have dealt with those involved are part of the overall problem.

‘GMB have real concerns that the Trust-commissioned report could be a further extension of that cover-up and an attempt to expose concerned whistleblowers. GMB are concerned that SECAmb investigation into staff harassment and bullying at Coxheath Emergency Operations Centre is more about uncovering whistleblowers than exposing bullies.

‘GMB union are seeking assurances on behalf of concerned staff that the investigation commissioned by the Trust is not simply a way of dissipating recent events at the EOC or an excuse to uncover those whistleblowers who have sought to expose some of the awful bullying and harassment as detailed in the recent Telegraph expose.

‘We believe that the Trust-commissioned EOC investigation is already clear in that the bullying at Coxheath EOC not only happened, but was both vicious, constant and intended, and that those responsible were rightly identified. What is not clear is why the Trust, instead of bringing those to blame to account, chose not to act and then cover up failure to act.

‘This why GMB continue to call for both a government-initiated independent inquiry as the only way the Trust can really look to convince staff that they actually mean what they say about workplace bullying being unacceptable.’

Concerns about harassment at South East Coast Ambulance Service are being studied by Prof Duncan Lewis from the University of Plymouth. On Monday this week, The Daily Telegraph reported claims of a ‘culture of bullying’ at the Trust, with staff subjected to abuse and harassment.

SECAmb responded by claiming that the article covered ‘historical allegations’, most of which had been dealt with.

The Trust commissioned the investigation, which is being funded externally by Health Education Kent, Surrey and Sussex. It said the probe has been planned for weeks and was not a result of the newspaper report. The initial investigation findings are expected in the summer.

The newspaper article, based on a dossier of documents, claimed two 999 call handlers attempted suicide and a third considered crashing her car to escape abuse. Several workers claimed they were under such pressure they could not concentrate on emergency calls at the operations centre in Coxheath, Kent.

In response to the story, the GMB described the Trust managers as ‘unaccountable’ and called on the government to intervene. The Trust said a project to tackle workplace bullying was being rolled out, alongside the review, as part of its broader recovery with NHS Improvement.

A spokesman said it had been ‘extremely well received by staff so far’.

He added: ‘Regarding the allegations of bullying in Coxheath, this was fully investigated at the time. A number of disciplinary hearings were held and action taken where necessary. Those staff who raised the concerns were, and continue to be, fully supported by the trust.’

A Department of Health spokeswoman said: ‘Any instance of bullying within the NHS is unacceptable and we are working with our partners to support all NHS organisations to tackle this and create a culture where all staff are treated fairly. NHS Improvement is working with South East Coast Ambulance Service to ensure all allegations of bullying are properly and appropriately dealt with.’

In January 2015 it was reported that the Trust had told paramedics to leave patients at A&E departments if they had not been admitted within 45 minutes of arrival. In March 2015 the Trust’s ‘immediate handover policy’ which was invoked on 10 February 2015 for an hour was condemned by clinicians at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust as ‘unsafe and likely to pose a notable increase to risk for patients in the emergency department’.

In November 2015, it emerged that the Trust had set up a project which ran from December 2014 to February 2015 where calls were transferred from the NHS 111 system and an additional 10 minutes was allocated to the response time which is part of the nationally agreed operating standards.

This delayed the despatch of ambulances to up to 20,000 patients. It was condemned by NHS England for putting the ‘public at risk’ because there was ‘no evaluation built into its design’. It was put into special measures in September 2016 after the Care Quality Commission rated it inadequate because of bullying, delayed response times and putting patients at risk.

South East Coast Ambulance Service is under severe financial pressure and faces a £7.1 million deficit. Ambulance crews in the area will no longer be paid to interrupt meal breaks and attend some types of emergencies. Patients with breathing problems, car crash victims, patients with chest pains, seizures and strokes among others face delayed response times. Critics fear this will put lives at risk and worsen outcomes for some surviving patients.