Many people will be disturbed by the evidence coming out of a public inquiry into the deaths of five children in Northern Ireland hospitals. Yesterday, for the first time, the Belfast Health Trust admitted liability for the deaths of two of the children. In one of the cases, the admission came an astonishing 17 years after the child's death. In all that time, the Trust had maintained that her death was due to a brain virus. It had previously admitted liability – but not publicly – for the other child's death, but that too only came after some considerable time.
The loss of a child in any circumstances is distressing. It is even more so when the death results from a failure in the medical care given to the child. People expect – sometimes unrealistically – medical professionals to routinely deliver the optimum care on all occasions. But even the most skilled practitioners are fallible.
However, when health authorities know that the fault lies with the treatment given they should admit that at the earliest possible moment. The Trust's insistence on denying liability for so long is reprehensible, prolonging the agony of already grieving parents. There is a suspicion that some cases are allowed to drag on in the hope that bereaved relatives will give up their quest to find out what happened, saving reputation or compensation.
That charge is not being levelled in these cases – or the deaths of the three other children – but it is a commonly held belief. Certainly the behaviour of the Belfast Trust has done little to dispel it.
But these delays in admitting liability also raise other issues. The period of time elapsed makes the laying of blame more difficult and those responsible for either the treatment or management of it may well have moved on or retired. We are told when inquiries are held that lessons have been learned and new procedures are in place to prevent any recurrence of the matter under investigation.
Too often those words just ring hollow.