Ex-hospital boss tells of ‘bullying culture’ inside NHS

The former boss of a hospital which is being investigated over high death rates yesterday described a culture of “sheer bullying” in the NHS.

Gary Walker, former chief executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust (ULHT), told the Health Select Committee he was threatened by East Midlands Strategic Health Authority (SHA) when he flagged up hospital capacity problems.

The whistleblower, who claimed he was sacked after raising concerns about patient safety, said he felt pressured by officials when he put the hospital on “red alert” because it was almost full to capacity.

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He said: “The response from the health authority was, ‘This is your problem – you need to meet the targets whatever the demand’.

“It is a very dangerous thing to be trying to push through targets when hospitals are dangerously overfull.”

Mr Walker, who was sacked in 2010 for “gross professional misconduct” over alleged swearing at a meeting, said he was forced to quit after refusing to meet Whitehall targets for non-emergency patients and was gagged from speaking out as part of a settlement deal.

He added in February 2009 he met Dame Barbara Hakin – who has been named interim chief operating officer of the NHS Commissioning Board – and “essentially certain threats were made to me like, ‘If you don’t deliver the targets then I won’t be able to protect you’. In essence there was a lot of pressure to deliver the targets and this was going to reflect on me as an individual if we didn’t meet those targets. At the same time I am asking for a capacity review, for help, and the situation escalated, when the hospital became more and more full more and more threats were made.”

He said he prepared a presentation for the Department of Health about problems with hitting targets but was ordered to remove any reference to him calling for a capacity review.

He said: “If you upset the SHA, particularly the one I was working for, there would be repercussions for you. You work in that environment as best you can.

“I spoke with other (hospital) chief executives and many of them, but not all, concurred with my view of the health authority that they were only ever interested if you’re going to suggest there is a problem anywhere, and they are very heavy-handed with how that problem is going to be resolved, so threats are made, people are told, ‘You realise the consequences if this doesn’t get done?’.

“This isn’t proper management, this is just sheer bullying.”

The former chairman of the trust, David Bowles, added that there is a culture in the health service of “making things look good rather than being good”. Mr Bowles, who also resigned in 2009, said the SHA deliberately hid financial troubles at the trust from senior Department of Health officials.