PSNI probe 'abuse' of vulnerable patients at Northern Ireland hospital - 13 staff taken off duty
Senior officials at the Belfast Health Trust last night issued an "unreserved apology" for the treatment of some patients with learning disabilities at Muckamore Abbey Hospital near Antrim.
They revealed that a safeguarding operation has been under way at the facility since September and 13 members of staff have been suspended, with 10 more being interviewed as witnesses.
The PSNI has been called in to investigate and an expert panel is to independently review the standard of care at Muckamore Abbey.
In a statement issued yesterday, the trust said that as a result of a review of archived CCTV footage, "a further number of past incidents have been brought to our attention in the last week".
Among the allegations being investigated are that members of staff kneed vulnerable patients in the genitals, pulled patients to the floor by their hair, and that one patient was punched in the face.
The alleged abuse centred on two wards at the hospital.
The Belfast Trust said: "From the outset, Belfast Trust wishes to apologise unreservedly to those patients and to their families who have been affected by treatment which falls significantly below acceptable professional standards and which our patients have every right to expect.
"We are in the process of meeting with the families so that we can apologise to them directly, and to explain in further detail the actions we are taking.
"We wish to assure all of the patients who we care for in Muckamore Abbey Hospital and their families that their safety is our absolute priority at all times."
The trust said that the safeguarding investigation was launched last year "following reports of inappropriate behaviour and the alleged physical abuse of patients by staff in two wards in Muckamore Abbey Hospital, one of which was the psychiatric intensive care unit."
The trust said that it had acted quickly to deal with the alleged abuse.
"At that time we took swift action and suspended four members of staff," it added.
"Since then we have put in place enhanced arrangements to ensure high standards of care are maintained.
"As part of the ongoing investigation and a review of archived CCTV footage, a further number of past incidents have been brought to our attention in the last week.
"Due to the serious nature of this evidence, we have taken immediate action to suspend nine staff - the majority of whom are nurses - and we are currently in the process of interviewing 10 further staff who were reported to us as witnesses to these events.
"Belfast Trust has secured the services of an expert panel, which includes a carer, to independently review the standard of care in Muckamore Abbey Hospital.
"This regrettable and unacceptable situation in no way reflects the work of our 500 dedicated and professional staff who provide excellent care every day to the 80 patients in Muckamore."
The trust added: "Finally, we wish to emphasise our profound sadness at this situation and our commitment to ensure patients are cared for safely in Muckamore Abbey Hospital."
Last night Margaret Kelly, director of Mencap NI, said: "Patients at Muckamore Abbey are some of the most vulnerable people in our society
"Many have severe and complex needs and have been living at the hospital most of their lives.
"It is vital that the abuse of vulnerable people with a learning disability is not tolerated, and those individuals responsible are held to account.
"It is clear that the system is failing some people with a learning disability and Mencap wants to see an end to people with a learning disability living for long periods in institutions."
South Antrim DUP MP Paul Girvan said the allegations were "deeply disturbing".
"It's vital families have reassurance that their relatives will receive the highest standard of care," he added.
South Antrim Ulster Unionistv MLA Steve Aiken said: "I'm very concerned about the implications this has for patients in the hospital.
"This situation has obviously been going on for some time."
He added: "I have asked for an urgent meeting with the Belfast Trust to discuss the issues, and find out what is going to happen, and how we can prevent similar things happening in future."