Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Shared knowledge could save lives

Health Minister Edwin Poots has given the Belfast Trust a very stern and very public dressing down, promising to oversee and scrutinise how the health body is run in the wake of its handling of the pseudomonas outbreak which led to the deaths of three babies.

His comments are all the more remarkable given that the full report into the handling of the outbreak has yet to be compiled, but it does appear to signal that the minister's patience has been stretched too far by a number of very public failings on the part of the trust.

While he wants to see improved communications between the trust and the department - as well as improved performance - he may need to go further. For the important issue in all of this is the secrecy culture within Northern Ireland's public sector, not just in health. The public would not have been aware of the first pseudomonas death at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry had the bereaved parents not contacted the media. If the original death had been made public properly the inevitable glare of publicity could have helped save the lives of the three others in Belfast.

Knowledge is power but it needs to be shared to be effective. Northern Ireland's hospital sector is relatively small and awareness of a serious problem in one hospital would have alerted everyone throughout the sector. Instead the matter was handled in a low key manner with - in hindsight - an inadequate circular sent from the Chief Medical Officer. Even the team of experts who met to discuss the issue responded with a lack of haste.

Governments, of course, hate to share information, but it is vital that they are forced to operate in as transparent a manner as possible. The public not only has a right to know what is happening in its name, but its very safety could depend on it. Health is one such area as these tragic deaths demonstrate. We cannot allow little groups of people to feel that they are the only ones with the right to know.

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