Department of Health Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly today apologised to families of Muckamore Abbey Hospital patients at a meeting with them at the Co Antrim facility.
Mr Pengelly also made a series of firm commitments to the families, as regards future care provision.
He was accompanied at the meeting by Chief Social Worker Sean Holland and Chief Nursing Officer Charlotte McArdle.
Commenting after the meeting, Mr Pengelly said: “It was important to me to apologise to families face-to-face for what happened to their loved ones while in the care of Muckamore Abbey Hospital - rather than through a press statement. I am both appalled and angered that vulnerable people were let down.
“At the same time, action is urgently needed by the HSC system as a whole in response to the recommendations of the Serious Adverse Incident (SAI) review.
“I fully endorse the view of the SAI panel that no one should have to call Muckamore their home in future, when there are better options for their care – I am now confirming to the families that this will be the case.
“That means Muckamore returns to being a hospital providing acute care, and not simply a residential facility.
“To make that happen will require investment in both specialised accommodation and staff training to meet the complex needs of people who no longer need to be in hospital.”
Mr Pengelly said he expects the resettlement process to be completed by the end of 2019. That means finding suitable alternative accommodation for patients who have been living at Muckamore on a long-term basis, despite not requiring in-patient hospital care.
The separate issue of delayed discharge will also be addressed as a top priority, with the HSC system tasked to provide an action plan to the Permanent Secretary in January. Delayed discharges involve patients staying longer than medically required due to difficulties securing appropriate alternative arrangements.
Mr Pengelly added: “I fully recognise that the December 2019 deadline for the resettlement process will be challenging, but the Department owes it to patients and their families to be demanding.”
The Permanent Secretary continued: “I also know that, while this report has highlighted appalling behaviours that fell well short of what is acceptable, there are many working in the HSC who work tirelessly to deliver high quality and safe services to families and people with learning disability, and will rise to this challenge. We have seen this as recently as this weekend in the actions of those staff who have provided much needed support and flexibility to ensure the safe and effective care of our most vulnerable patients in Muckamore. It is important in the midst of this not to overlook the dedicated and compassionate care that families have also experienced.
“I will be holding the HSC system to account and closely monitoring progress.”
During the meeting, Mr Pengelly also directly addressed the call from some of the families for a public inquiry. “I want to take this opportunity to reassure the families that I have not ruled out any options regarding further scrutiny of the serious failings at Muckamore.
“Active investigations into wrongdoing are ongoing by both the PSNI and the Belfast Trust as employer. The ongoing police investigation clearly takes primacy over any other process at present.
“The HSC system will continue to cooperate fully with the PSNI inquiry while also rigorously pursuing its own disciplinary procedures.”
Mr Pengelly also took the opportunity to update the families on plans for a new model of acute care for people with learning disability through the transformation agenda, saying: “This work will now be prioritised as part of a wider project already initiated to transform learning disability services, and will take account of the findings of the SAI report which states very clearly that the current model is not working. We need urgently to find pragmatic solutions to the issues laid out in stark terms in this report.”
Addressing the core purpose of the SAI, to review safeguarding practice at the hospital, Mr Pengelly confirmed that, in addition to closely scrutinising the actions now required by the Trust to address the findings of the report, the Department is actively considering a proposal to introduce adult safeguarding legislation in Northern Ireland. He said: “Any new legislative proposals will have to take account of lessons learned in other jurisdictions, and would be subject to a full public consultation and ministerial approval.”
Mr Pengelly expressed his thanks to the families for taking the time to meet with him, and for sharing their concerns and issues. He also thanked the SAI independent panel for their work.
He added: “I remain very concerned about the HSC system’s current structures and attitudes regarding concerns and complaints from service users and their families. All too often, it seems the onus is on citizens to persuade the system that something is wrong.
“While important work is already underway on establishing advocacy rights and arrangements that empower citizens, I will want to pay close attention that this has the desired impact.
“In the interim, the Patient Client Council has been tasked with enhancing its complaints helpline for patients, families and other service users.”
Finally, Mr Pengelly stated that it was his intention to have regular meetings with the families to keep them updated on developments and to listen to any new concerns that they may have.
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