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Court lifts suspensions of Muckamore staff but ongoing probe bars their return to work

By Lisa Smyth

The suspension of a number of Muckamore Abbey Hospital nurses by their regulatory body has been lifted following a legal challenge, but they cannot yet return to work.

The seven staff had been suspended by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) amid allegations of physical and mental abuse against patients at the facility, which is located on the outskirts of Antrim.

However, on Friday the High Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to justify the suspensions.

It is understood that the Belfast Trust, which runs the hospital, was unable to provide CCTV footage of alleged abuse to the NMC, due to the continuing police investigation.

However, a spokeswoman for the Belfast Trust last night said that its own processes were unaffected by the ruling.

"The staff remain on precautionary suspension from Belfast Trust whilst investigations are ongoing," the spokeswoman said.

She said that the trust had agreed a system to provide any additional information required by the NMC.

She said: "We are aware of the High Court decision and understand the impact this will have on families.

"We have contacted families directly over the weekend to discuss concerns.

"We appreciate that this is a difficult time.

"Belfast Trust has been in contact with the NMC and has agreed a process to provide any additional information they require."

Meanwhile, Matthew McClelland, director of fitness to practise at the NMC, apologised for the impact on patients' families.

"We are continuing to investigate the very serious allegations about nursing care at Muckamore Abbey Hospital," he said.

"In light of the court's decision, we urge the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust to provide us with the evidence we have previously requested, which we require so we can take appropriate regulatory action."

Concerns over the safety and well-being of residents at Muckamore Abbey emerged last year, after CCTV footage showing healthcare professionals assaulting patients in the hospital's intensive care unit came to light.

Families have since come forward to make shocking allegations about the conditions endured by loved ones living there, including a seclusion room which was described by one parent as "a dark dungeon".

An independent investigation subsequently found that patients' lives had been put at risk, prompting the Department of Health's permanent secretary, Richard Pengelly, to speak out about the abuse suffered by residents.

"There is no other way of describing the findings of the panel's report than truly shocking," he said.

Mr Pengelly has been coming under increasing pressure to call a public inquiry into conditions at the hospital, while the chair of the Bamford Review - a major review of mental health services in Northern Ireland - has said that the crisis "could be the tip of the iceberg".

He described testimonies from parents of adult children with profound learning difficulties as "a disturbing listen".

Last month PSNI officers searched eight homes linked to hospital staff and seized mobile phones from properties in Co Antrim and Co Down.

A detective confirmed that the police team is examining 158 alleged incidents of "ill treatment" and is committed to a "full and thorough" investigation.

Detective Chief Inspector Jill Duffie said her team is "very sensitive" to the "trauma and impact" upon those families learning about horrific abuse of their loved ones.

She said: "We will continue to work through every report made to us to establish if criminal offences have been committed."

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