A controversial NHS trust which barred its female patients from going to the toilet has been condemned as “unacceptable” by inspectors and told to make significant improvements.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) has rated acute wards at Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT) inadequate after an investigation found patients were also prevented from accessing the gardens, bedrooms and bathrooms.

They also found cases of staff falling asleep while observing patients.

Inspectors made unannounced visits after the trust informed the CQC of a “scheduled broadcast” of undercover filming by the Channel 4 investigative programme, Dispatches. They looked at two wards which both provide inpatient care and treatment for women, including some detained under the Mental Health Act 1983.

Ceri Morris-Williams, CQC deputy director of mental health in the east of England, said: “Our inspection raised some very serious concerns about people’s safety. Staff weren’t always following the trust’s own policies regarding people’s observations. Patients told inspectors they had seen staff falling asleep while they were on duty. Our inspectors reviewed data and found two instances where staff were reported to be asleep while undertaking observations.

“We also found blanket restrictions in place which stopped people from accessing the gardens, bedrooms, bathrooms and toilets this is unacceptable. Leaders need to find ways to give people the basic freedoms they are entitled to whilst keeping them safe.

“We were concerned enough that at the inspection we told the trust we would be proceeding with enforcement action if they didn’t assure us that rapid improvements were being made on these wards.”

Inspectors found very high levels of vacancies across both wards with many different temporary staff unfamiliar with the patients and their needs. At the time of inspection, the vacancy rate for registered nurses was 81 per cent in one ward and 56 per cent in the other. Managers were heavily reliant on the use of agency staff to fill shifts.

The trust was given a warning notice saying improvements must be made in staffing, patient observations, blanket restrictions, ensuring patient consent, and recording and reporting of incidents.

The CQC said it would continue to monitor the service and, if the required improvements are not made in a reasonable time, would not hesitate to take further action.

The mother of a teenager who was found hanged at a mental health unit run by EPUT over a decade ago has said there is “no end to sight” to the trust’s failings following publication of the CQC’s damning report.

Melanie Leahy, whose son Matthew died at The Linden Centre, a secure mental health unit in Chelmsford, Essex, in November 2012, said “lives have been lost” as a result of complaints like hers not being acted upon quickly enough. She has spent the last 10 years campaigning for a statutory public inquiry into Essex mental health services.

Ms Leahy told i: “I knew that today’s news would come and this is why I have never stopped pushing for a statutory public inquiry [into Essex mental health service]. I don’t want anyone to forget that these relentless findings describe preventable human suffering.

“Everything else has been tried. We have been forced to go right through the tortuous hell of due process rather than be taken at our word when we said that nothing less would work. In that time, lives have been lost and there is no end in sight because due process trusts those under scrutiny to behave well and to offer themselves up honestly.

“Many traumatised families wait patiently to give critical evidence but can’t until they can trust in the seriousness of a proper statutory public inquiry. Having lost those we loved in the worst of circumstances we knew that nothing would happen without the full force of the law. And now our MPs stand with us saying the same.”

Former Home Secretary Priti Patel, the Tory MP for Witham, is among those supporting Ms Leahy’s campaign. An inquiry into deaths of mental health patients at The Linden Centre over a 20-year period was announced in November 2020. It was broadened to include units over the whole of Essex following an outcry from relatives who have lost loved ones under NHS care.

The Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry is now investigating the deaths of 2,000 patients, but chair Dr Geraldine Strathdee has said it is being held up by the unwillingness of staff to participate in the process. The independent inquiry does not have the power to compel witnesses – both current and former NHS staff – to come forward and give evidence on oath, as a statutory public inquiry would.

It is the UK’s largest ever mental health inquiry, but Dr Strathdee said it will never be able to publish worthwhile findings after just 11 of 14,000 NHS staff said they would give evidence in person.

A spokesperson for EPUT said: “The care and safety of our patients is our number one priority and we welcome the CQC’s support. Over the last two years we’ve delivered many improvements that benefit our patients – these include spending £20m on improving the environments on our wards to make them both safer and more therapeutic, as well as working with our staff on improvements to the way in which they support and care for people who are suffering a mental health crisis.

“We know there is more to do and we continue to drive forward in collaboration with the people using our services, their families and carers.”

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