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Pexels / Louis Bauer
Pexels / Louis Bauer

Government inaction on medical harm is indefensible

As the Conservative Party limps through its probable final year in government, the list of crucial things undone and wildly overdue is far too long to list. Ones that pop up on my radar regularly include the pesticide action plan (six years late and counting) and the land use framework promised by the end of 2023, and currently at “before summer recess”.

But there are few failures so individually painful, so impactful on lives of already great suffering and struggle, than those identified in a report last month from the Patient Safety Commissioner. 

It reflected on the progress, and not, delivered by the government nearly four years after a report from Conservative Baroness Cumberlege, titled First Do No Harm, on avoidable injury caused in the NHS by pelvic mesh, epilepsy medication resulting in birth defects, and hormonal pregnancy tests. The “Cumberlege report” is regarded as a master-case of how to collect and report official failures, and to provide practical, effective steps to remedy them.

The very existence of the Patient Safety Commissioner was one such outcome, even though the government had to be wrestled into action on this obvious measure. I was pushing on that subject – and reflecting on the long time gender issues in the delivery of medical care that lie behind these tragedies - back in 2020.

The report of the Patient Safety Commissioner for England, Dr Henrietta Hughes, acknowledges that the government has taken some steps to address some of these issues, like establishing pelvic mesh support centres and NHS claim gateways for victims.

The report calls for the creation of an independent agency to provide redress for victims Quote

Since the report came out, there’s been further progress too, in changing prescribing regulations so that sodium valproate will not be dispensed in plain packets – without the essential warning labels. Although again this took significant pushing before the government took action.

However, Dr Hughes says that it is evident that these measures have not gone far enough; the quality of care received at pelvic mesh support centres is varied and the claim gateways are inadequate because they do not challenge underlying legal frameworks or provide comprehensive support to victims.

And the really crucial issue is financial compensation. At the launch of the report, we heard from victims – including one mother with five of her six children suffering catastrophic disability and social exclusion as a result of the damage done by sodium valproate.

The report calls for the creation of an independent agency to provide redress for victims, which would make it easier to access compensation. Hughes also called for a two-stage financial compensation, with initial payments of £25,000, with patients potentially entitled to up to £100,000 depending on their needs. This could provide immediate relief for the victims affected, to deal with some of the pressing issues affecting their lives.

Beyond that, however, the report calls ultimately for comprehensive redress that extends beyond financial compensation to include housing grants and proper assistance for parents of children with special needs.

The recommendations were welcomed by some victim campaign groups, but still received mixed responses. The head of the valproate support group commented that this was a “huge step forward,” but noted that patients will still need to wait and see whether the government decides to take any action.

Moreover, despite being identified as victims of a major medical failing in the 2020 review, Primodos victims were not included in the report. Victims have said that they have been “airbrushed” from the scheme. Dr Hughes noted that the government, who commissioned the review, did not want Primodos victims to be included despite her arguing for their inclusion.

There’s enough election speculation around that I won’t add to it here, but before this government leaves office, whenever that is, it could, and must, take steps to implement the Cumberlege Report, that it commissioned, by following Dr Hughes recommendations and setting in chain relief for victims of medical failure who are so in need of it.

This article was written with assistance from Dr Jenn Howe, King’s College London.

Natalie Bennett

Baroness Natalie Bennett is a member of the House of Lords and led the Green Party from 2012-2016.

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