Publicly discussing problems about the NHS may until recently have been blocked by employers, but the Government has now banned gagging clauses that have previously stopped staff speaking out about patient safety and care issues on leaving the NHS. In the past hundreds of departing whistleblowers have been silenced through these means as part of their severance packages. The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, advised that such clauses would end immediately, giving former staff the right to speak out about issues relevant to the public such as unacceptable patient care and high death rates, as was the case at Mid Staffordshire Hospital. He hopes that this will help to promote openness and transparency throughout the NHS and prevent further instances of patient neglect, which have previously been allowed to persist by covering up problems. As a result this is hoped to increase standards of patient care.
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Changes to severance payouts
During a three year period nearly £15 million was spent on compromise agreements and in 90% of cases these contained clauses preventing former NHS employees from speaking out about concerns. All compromise agreements have to be given approval by the Department of Health and Treasury. However, Hunt has advised that from now on, none that contain confidentiality clauses will be approved, so all will be thoroughly checked for any evidence of this. That said this new ruling may not extend to severance payments made through another process – judicial mediation – which does not involve either body and it is not clear how much money has been paid out through this route previously to whistleblowers leaving the NHS.
Achieving consistent care across the NHS
While whistleblowing is currently needed to identify failings and staff should be able to take their concerns to a higher level if not addressed, it is hoped that a situation will be reached where this is no longer necessary, where good care is provided without fail. A chief inspector of hospitals is part of the plan to raise standards within the NHS and ensure that consistent care is provided no matter where patients are treated. Each hospital will be scored on a range of factors, but a third of this will be determined by how patients find their hospital experience; no longer will it be acceptable for staff to think that patient care should be left until all other tasks have been completed.