East Kent Hospital University Trust maternity services are run from two of its major hospitals, the William Harvey in Ashford and the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in Margate and support over 750,000 residents.
The Trust is currently being investigated for the death of 15 babies amid accusations of covering up sudden and avoidable baby deaths. Twelve grieving families alleged that medical staff failed to report unexplained deaths and claimed that the deaths were unavoidable.
The extent of the failings at East Kent was brought to light following the death of baby Harry Richford at the Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital in Margate in 2017. Following Harry’s death, other families have come forward and these new allegations have led to the Government launching an inquiry.
Suspicious Failure to Report and Investigate Deaths
According to details obtained by Derek Richford (baby Harry’s grandfather) through a freedom of information request, 124 infants lost their lives at the NHS trust in the last seven years. However only 24 cases were reported to the coroner. Suspicion was raised as most of these unreported deaths were unexplained and sudden.
Hospitals in England are required to report all unexpected or sudden deaths of anyone under the age of 18 to the coroner. East Kent Hospital Trust failed to submit information on the deaths of the 100 unreported cases to the coroner for Mid Kent and Medway.
In a letter sent to the grieving families and their legal team, the senior coroner wrote:
‘..deaths of babies within the trust which should have been referred to the coroner at the time of the death had not been…I am of course now aware of a number of historic baby deaths that were not referred to the coroner at the time.’
The Case of Baby Harry
In November 2017, baby Harry Richford died at the Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital. Sarah Richford, Harry’s mother, was admitted for an overdue emergency caesarean. In addition to the delay in carrying out the procedure, the operation was conducted by an inexperienced locum doctor.
Baby Harry was born limp and required resuscitation, which was also delayed. He died a week later from irreversible brain damage.
The Richford family took the matter in to their own hands once it had been determined that the Trust had no intention of reporting Harry’s death to the Mid Kent and Medway coroner. Derek Richford, Baby Harry’s grandfather, contacted the coroner in March 2018.
In a statement to the press, Mr Derek Richford claimed:
‘Since Harry died, we have found that the trust have done everything in their power to avoid scrutiny…I still can’t fully decide if this was a matter of gross incompetence or a conspiracy to cover failings.’
According to the family, the hospital claimed that Harry’s death was unavoidable, although a coroner ruled that his death was ‘wholly avoidable’ and that hospital neglect was a significant factor.
Not an Isolated Incident
Katy King accused the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, Kent of failing to identify a fungal infection that led to her son’s death at 13 days old.
Miss King went into early labour at 28 weeks and although her baby was born prematurely, he was developing well. That was until he suddenly fell ill and died within 4 days. The hospital claimed that the cause of death was an unspecified genetic condition.
Miss King said:
‘We’ll never know if he’d been given the anti-fungal medication, would he ever have got the infection. It just has such a horrific effect on everyone.’
She also claims that her son’s death was not referred to the coroner.
Kirsty Stead is another mother who lost her baby. Miss Stead complained to staff at the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital of excessive movement, irregular contractions, and severe pain. Her baby, Reid Andrew Shaw, was pronounced dead a day before her due date.
Miss Stead claimed that:
‘I was told initially he’d died because the cord was wrapped around him. But the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch report says it was the infection that killed him. So someone wasn’t telling the truth at the start…It felt like they thought I was overreacting because I wasn’t experienced. I’m angry, very angry. Not for me but for my son. He had no chance…We should have been receiving the best care but we didn’t.’
Some families claimed that staff blamed them for the deaths alledging that some parents refused medical interventions or passed infections to infants. Maureen Treadwell from the Birth Trauma Association commented:
‘So many trusts have a greater focus on looking good rather than being good. Staff are scared to be honest despite the duty of candour they have.’
Widespread Failings at East Kent Being Investigated
According to experts, the failings at East Kent Hospitals Trust were widespread and there has been ‘recurrent safety risk’ at the maternity units. Recent reports show that the NHS trust has relatively high neonatal deaths compared with other hospitals of its size.
An inquiry instigated by the death of baby Harry has been launched to investigate the issues raised. The inquiry is being led by Dr Bill Kirkup, who also chaired a review into the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay’s maternity scandal.
After investigations were launched to acertain the level of maternity care at the East Kent Hospitals Trust, their spokesman admitted that the death of Harry and other babies should have been reported. The hospital also stated that:
‘We recognise that we have not always provided the right standard of care for every woman and baby in our hospitals and we wholeheartedly apologise to families for whom we could have done thing differently.’
The East Kent hospital further commented:
‘We are treating the concerns raised about the safety of the service with the utmost seriousness and urgency. We have made significant changes to maternity care and we will not rest until we are delivering an outstanding maternity service that has the full confidence of all families in east Kent…We have welcomed the Independent Investigation into East Kent Maternity Services and we are doing everything in our power to assist and support Dr Kirkup and his team.’
The trust’s clinical director for women’s health, Dr John Seaton, advised that a five-year strategy was being developed to deliver the aims of the organization. Extra staff have been hired in some hospitals including senior midwives, which was an area of improvement highlighted by the Care Quality Commission inspectors in January 2020.
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