Families who lost loved ones at NHS mental health units across Essex over a 20-year period fear the inquiry into their deaths has stalled as it still does not have a chair.
The Government upgraded the independent inquiry to a statutory footing in June, which means it will be able to compel current and former NHS staff to come forward and give evidence. The move was a victory for campaigners who had refused to engage with officials until the inquiry was given extra legal powers.
However, they have been left frustrated as the inquiry’s former chair, Dr Geraldine Strathdee, has yet to be replaced two months after announcing she was stepping down from her role due to health reasons.
The delay continues as NHS leadership comes under fresh criticism following the Lucy Letby case. An independent inquiry into the nurse’s crimes will also investigate whether hospital managers mishandled complaints about the serial killer.
The Essex inquiry was prompted by the deaths of 20-year-old Matthew Leahy, in November 2012, and another man, also aged 20, on 28 December, 2008. Both men died at The Linden Centre, Chelmsford, part of the former North Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust.
Melanie Leahy, who campaigned for almost a decade to have a statutory inquiry into her son’s death, said she feared the investigation would be delayed further until a new chair is announced.
Ms Leahy told i: “By not having a chair, none of the families can get much support, and the solicitors are still having to work pro-bono because we can’t get any funding. We weren’t given a timeframe, but they have known for months now that the inquiry was going to get upgraded to a statutory footing and that Dr Strathdee was going to resign. Since then it’s been radio silence and we’re worried that this is all just getting kicked down the line continuously.
“We’re hearing lots of problems are still going on at NHS mental health trusts in Essex with staff sleeping on duty, not observing patients, and it’s really very poor.”
Ms Leahy also criticised the fact the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB), which is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care, is also carrying out its own investigation at the same time as the inquiry.
She said: “Some of the families have received paperwork from HSIB as they are doing an investigation, so what is it the Government are trying to do? They seem to have little investigations branches going off at tangents to try and lessen the impact the inquiry could cause. So that’s very strange. You do wonder what’s going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about.”
The Government is also under growing pressure to upgrade the Letby inquiry and make it statutory so it can also compel witnesses to give evidence on oath. The Department of Health and Social Care originally launched a non-statutory inquiry in the belief that it would be quicker. However, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said last week that the Government had not ruled out holding a statutory inquiry.
Letby was handed a whole-life prison sentence for the murders of seven babies in her care at the Countess of Chester hospital and the attempted murders of six more. Ms Leahy said she expected both inquiries to hear a “common issue” over the accountability of NHS leaders.
The Essex inquiry, which is investigating the deaths of around 2,000 mental health inpatients across NHS trusts in the county between 2000 and 2020, was announced in January 2021 by then health secretary Nadine Dorries. It is the UK’s largest investigation into mental health services and campaigners believe the findings will not be unique to Essex. They want the inquiry to act as a catalyst in improving mental health care across the country.
Health officials said they are working to secure a chair and will make an announcement on Dr Strathdee’s replacement in due course.
Announcing in June that the inquiry would be upgraded, Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, said: “I remain determined to transform and improve mental health care and will continue working to ensure people right across the country receive the care they need.”