Health Minister Robin Swann has said a report into the work of disgraced neurologist Dr Michael Watt makes “very difficult reading” and issued his “heartfelt apologies” to patients affected.
Mr Swann made the statement after the Independent Neurology Inquiry published its final report on Tuesday morning, which made 76 recommendations following a series of failures by the Belfast Trust to intervene in the care of more than 5,000 former patients of Dr Watt.
The minister acknowledged it was a “harrowing day” for the patients involved and their families and one that would “exacerbate the trauma already experienced”.
Mr Swann said the report would be given “careful and measured” consideration and said the change as recommended in the findings would happen “as quickly as possible”.
“Once again, on behalf of the entire health service, I extend my heartfelt apologies to all those who have been so badly let down,” he said.
“My thoughts today are very much with all the patients and families affected by the neurology recall.
“I want to thank the Inquiry Chair Brett Lockhart QC, Inquiry Co-Panellist Professor Hugo Mascie-Taylor, and their wider team for their vitally important work.
“The Inquiry Panel’s report is extensive and detailed. I will ensure it is given the careful and measured consideration that it deserves.
“I am determined that this analysis should happen as quickly as possible. I undertake to provide a full response to the Report’s recommendations, as soon as is practicable.”
The published report was critical of the Belfast Trust and said it “could and should have intervened earlier but failed to do so”.
It also found significant evidence “that concerns had been raised and had not been appropriately managed or further escalated on numerous occasions”.
The Belfast Trust has apologised to the patients who “suffered avoidable and unnecessary harm whilst under the care of Dr Watt”. A statement said: “We are wholly and unreservedly sorry that occurred.”
Dr Cathy Jack, chief executive of the Belfast Health Trust, has apologised to Dr Michael Watt's former patients, saying the trust let them down.
She said she would not be resigning, saying she did not believe this "incredibly difficult time" for the health service and trust would be improved if leaders "abandon their posts".
"I have important work to do in very difficult circumstances in order to build safer and better services for patients, service users and staff, and I intend to get on with doing it," she said.
Mr Swann continued: “Today’s report makes very difficult reading for anyone who cares about health and social care in Northern Ireland.
“It states that systems and processes in place to assure the public in respect of patient safety prior to November 2016 failed. Crucially, opportunities to intervene in relation to Michael Watt’s practice were missed over a number of years.
“The Inquiry Panel believes that without the then Belfast Trust’s Medical Director’s response in December 2016 to concerns that had been raised, and more particularly in July 2017, there is no guarantee that the problems identified in the recall would have necessarily emerged.
“It is acknowledged in the report that changes have been initiated since the neurology recall to improve patient safety.
“The entire HSC system must continue building on these improvements, guided by the Inquiry Panel’s report.
“While the reputation of our health service has undoubtedly been tarnished, we must also be mindful of the high quality, compassionate care provided every day by dedicated and skilled staff. Thankfully, they are the norm.
“Robust processes and procedures are essential to identify and deal with errant and failing practitioners. This Inquiry Report has relevance right across the HSC and indeed the entire NHS, and I will be sharing its findings with my counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales. It also raises issues about the independent health sector and the GMC.
“Health care is of immense importance and as a result there are invariably very serious consequences when it goes wrong. We must always strive to learn from such cases, and take decisive action to ensure failings do not re-occur.
“That will be the absolute priority for me and for my Department.”
Dr Watt was at the centre of Northern Ireland's largest ever recall of patients, which began in 2018, after concerns were raised about his clinical work.
More than 4,000 of his former patients attended recall appointments.
Almost a fifth of patients who attended recall appointments were found to have received an "insecure diagnosis".
The final report following the Independent Neurology Inquiry found that problems with Dr Watt's practice were missed for years and opportunities to intervene were lost.
The inquiry, led by Brett Lockhart QC, examined whether there were complaints or concerns which should have alerted the Belfast Health Trust to instigate an earlier investigation.
It concluded that the trust could and should have intervened earlier but failed to do so.
However the report also finds the failings identified were not confined to the trust.