The UK’s largest-ever investigation into mental health services is expected to be upgraded to a public inquiry after an intervention by senior Tories.
Health Secretary Steve Barclay agreed that changes have to be made to the status of the Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry, after it stalled due to a near total lack of co-operation from current and former NHS staff.
The inquiry is investigating the deaths of 2,000 people at Essex NHS mental health units over a 20-year period, but has been undermined by thousands of current and former staff refusing to give evidence.
Dozens of families of those who died are also refusing to engage with the inquiry because they believe only a statutory public inquiry, which would compel witnesses to come forward and give evidence on oath, can provide the answers they need.
Former Culture Secretary Sir John Whittingdale and ex-Home Secretary Priti Patel were among six Essex MPs who met Mr Barclay on Wednesday.
Sir John said Mr Barclay “listened carefully and… accepted that there had to be changes to the Inquiry status”. The Health Secretary will meet inquiry chair Dr Geraldine Strathdee after Easter and an announcement is expected to follow that a public inquiry will take place.
Sir John told i: “The Secretary of State was extremely sympathetic and he recognises that the current situation is unsustainable, something has to change, particularly with regard to not just the lack of members of staff coming forward, but also the 84 families who are not engaging with the inquiry, unless the status changes.
“He is going to have a further meeting after Easter with the chair of the inquiry to discuss what changes should be made, but he is certainly sympathetic. He recognises there is going to have to be change to the status – exactly what that entails, we’ll wait to see.”
Asked if he was confident that the change would happen, Sir John said: “I very much hope so. [Mr Barclay] was very receptive, he absolutely accepts that there needs to be changes made and recognises that getting all the families to engage is an important part of that.”
Melanie Leahy, who has spent the last 13 years campaigning for a statutory public inquiry following the death of her 20-year-old son, Matthew, at a mental health unit in Essex in November 2012, said a public inquiry is now “inevitable”.
She told i: “The current inquiry is not going anywhere so it has to become a public inquiry now. What other route can they take? The momentum is there now. We didn’t have any MPs supporting us before, now we have six, including two former cabinet ministers. The group of families [refusing to engage] is getting bigger, the death toll is getting bigger. The problem is clearly not sorting itself out.
“We now have the opportunity to change mental health services not just in Essex, but around the country, given how many tragic failings there have been and continue to be. What’s going on in Essex is being repeated across England, so any learning and recommendations that come from a public inquiry here has to spread nationally.”
The inquiry is focused on the deaths of 2,000 patients, all of which occurred while they were on a mental health ward in Essex, or within three months of being discharged, between 2000 and 2020. The inquiry was announced by Nadine Dorries in 2020, when she was a health minister, following a series of deaths at The Linden Centre in Chelmsford, including Matthew Leahy’s.
In January, Dr Strathdee said she had been left “hugely disappointed” by the lack of engagement from current and former employees at NHS units in Essex after only 11 of 14,000 NHS staff said they would give evidence in person. She told Mr Barclay the inquiry would therefore be “inadequate” and could not meet its terms of reference, which include making recommendations to improve mental health care across the NHS.
Sir John asked the group of families who. refused to engage with the inquiry to meet their legal advisers to “set out the detailed changes to the nature and terms of reference of the Inquiry that you are wishing to see”.
A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Every death in a mental health facility is a tragedy. We are committed to improving mental health services across the country and it was for this reason that we launched the inquiry to look at inpatient mental health deaths in Essex between 2000 and 2020.
“We are grateful to all those who have participated which is enormously helpful to the work of the Inquiry. We firmly believe in the importance of transparency and accountability in learning the lessons of the past to improve patient safety. It is disappointing that current and former staff have not engaged to the extent expected nor that the inquiry has been able to access all the information it has requested.
“The progress of the Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry is being carefully considered.”
Dr Strathdee appealed for help last year for more people to come forward to give evidence about the deaths of 1,500 patients, which was soon increased to “closer to 2,000” after being made aware of more deaths of patients by Essex Partnership University Trust (EPUT).
Two wards for female patients at EPUT, which was created in April 2017 following the merger of North Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust and South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, were given an inadequate rating by the Care Quality Commission on Friday. Inspectors found blanket restrictions in place, which stopped people from accessing the gardens, bedrooms, bathrooms and even the toilets.