Individuals involved in a cover-up at a health watchdog could face disciplinary action and other sanctions, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has told the House of Commons.
The comments came after a damning report concluded that the Care Quality Commission (CQC) might have deliberately suppressed an internal review which highlighted weaknesses in its inspections of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Trust in relation to 12 serious untoward incidents, including a cluster of deaths in the maternity department.
The revelations were branded "deeply disturbing and appalling" by Downing Street, and Mr Hunt told MPs in a statement that he was determined that "the whole truth must now come out".
The Health Secretary issued an apology on behalf of the Government and NHS to the families of those who died, including Joshua Titcombe who died at just nine days old at Furness General Hospital in 2008 after staff failed to spot and treat an infection.
Mr Hunt told the House of Commons: "What happened at Morecambe Bay is above all a terrible personal tragedy for all the families involved. I want to apologise on behalf of the Government and the NHS for all the appalling suffering they have endured." The families of those affected had to "work tirelessly to expose the truth" in the face of a culture of "defensiveness and secrecy" similar to that seen in the separate Mid-Staffordshire scandal, said the Health Secretary.
And he said that the independent report exposed failings in the CQC's response to concerns about the trust. The watchdog gave Morecambe Bay NHS Trust, which ran Furness Hospital, a clean bill of health in 2010. A year later, as more concerns came to light, it ordered an internal review into how problems had been missed. But in March last year it was decided the findings should not be made public as the review was so critical of the CQC
The report, commissioned by the watchdog's new chairman David Prior after he took up his post in January, concludes that there is "persuasive evidence" that a senior CQC official ordered its review of the inspections it carried out to be deleted because it was "negative and therefore damaging for CQC".
Mr Hunt told MPs that Mr Prior will now report to him on further action to be taken by the CQC, including possible "internal disciplinary procedures and other appropriate sanctions". "As we saw with Mid-Staffs, a culture in the NHS had been allowed to develop where defensiveness and secrecy were put ahead of patient safety and care," said Mr Hunt, who told MPs the Government was taking action to "root out this culture and ensure this kind of cover-up never happens again".
Jackie Daniel, chief executive of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust, said: "As the report was published today, the trust now needs the time to read and digest the contents to establish what implications and lessons there are for the organisation. Whilst there is still a lot of work to do, staff have been working hard across our hospitals and significant progress has been made in the last year. We now have a new trust board in place with clinicians leading changes in the way we provide patient care. We have badly let down patients and the public in the past and the new board is committed to providing safe and quality care to the level that the public, staff and regulators expect and rightly demand."
Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron has written to the Metropolitan Police asking for an investigation into the allegations of a cover-up at the CQC. In a letter to Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Liberal Democrat MP wrote: "I believe this information that has come to light today could be prima facie evidence that an offence has been committed. I urge you to proceed with an investigation using the evidence available."