Jeremy Hunt has defied the central recommendation of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, that the rights of patients be formally enshrined at the heart of the NHS.
Robert Francis, the inquiry chairman, said that one of his top priorities was for the NHS constitution to be rewritten, making it explicit that “patients are put first” and “everything done by the NHS should be informed by this ethos”.
He recommended that the Health Secretary also consider stipulating that NHS staff “put patients before themselves”.
But the redrafted constitution, quietly released last week, simply states that the health service will “aspire” to put patients first.
The disclosure came as a new mortality rate scandal emerged. A children’s heart unit suspended all surgery following evidence that it had twice as many deaths as would be expected.
Leeds General Infirmary was forced to close its paediatric heart unit on Thursday, after Sir Bruce Keogh, the NHS medical director, was shown data comparing the unit with eight other specialist centres in England.
Surgeons had contacted him with their fears two days earlier.
The Telegraph understands that there has been considerable wrangling within the Department of Health over its response to the Francis inquiry, with fears that the “medical establishment” has secured important concessions from ministers.
Virtually all changes to make medical staff more accountable for their actions have been dropped or watered down. Another key recommendation, to introduce a “duty of candour” for doctors or nurses witnessing substandard care, has been shelved.
A Whitehall source said: “Ministers have backed down and failed to act on several of the recommendations which were the most uncomfortable for the medical community. The planned change to the constitution would effectively have enshrined the core rights of patients, in an almost legal way.”
Next week, GPs will formally take control of budgets for patients’ treatment, a separate reform which has generated great controversy. The constitution sets out a framework for the new-look NHS.
Pat Gould, of the Royal College of Midwives, said:
“We would have liked to have seen a stronger commitment to patients being put first.”
Andrew Gwynne, the shadow health minister, added:
“It has come to something when ministers only ‘aspire’ to put patients first.”
Up to 1,200 people may have died as a result of poor care at hospitals run by the Mid Staffordshire NHS trust. In the wake of the scandal, the Telegraph launched the Put Patients First campaign, calling for NHS staff and managers to be held to account for the failings.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said:
“We have strengthened the NHS Constitution in light of our initial response to the Francis Inquiry to make even clearer the fact that patients are at the heart of everything the NHS does.
“We will continue to work with stakeholders to develop proposals for increasing the impact of the constitution, and we expect to consult again later in the year on changes to improve it further.”
This article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 29 March 2013