NO CRIMINAL charges will be brought over an outbreak of Clostridium difficile at a Scottish hospital in which 18 people died, it was announced yesterday.
The outbreak at the Vale of Leven Hospital in Dunbartonshire saw 55 patients infected with the bug between December 2007 and June 2008.
A report which condemned conditions at the hospital and failures in hygiene and infection control was passed to prosecutors last year. But yesterday the Crown Office said there would be no criminal proceedings over the outbreak.
MSPs and families of the victims said they had never wanted individuals to be prosecuted, instead blaming "systems failure" for the tragedy.
It also emerged that Lord Coulsfield, who was to lead the public inquiry into the Vale of Leven outbreak, has withdrawn for health reasons, leaving the Scottish Government in search of a new chairman.
The Crown Office statement yesterday said: "After careful consideration, Crown counsel concluded that there should be no criminal proceedings arising from the circumstances surrounding the outbreak."
Of the 18 patients who died in the outbreak, nine had C difficile recorded as their main cause of death, while in nine it was a contributory factor.
An independent review of Vale of Leven last summer revealed a shortage of handbasins, a lack of isolation facilities, beds crammed close together and "shabby" surroundings.
In February, a follow-up report found that there had been a "rapid and very significant progress" in improvements.
In April, health secretary Nicola Sturgeon succumbed to pressure to hold a public inquiry into the outbreak.
Yesterday, C diff Justice Group secretary Michelle Stewart said the decision not to prosecute had not come as a surprise to the families.
"We've campaigned for a public inquiry, but we've always said no-one was to blame. We didn't want a vendetta with people losing their jobs. That is not going to get justice for those who died," said Ms Stewart, whose mother-in-law, Sarah McGinty, 67, died in the outbreak.
"We see what happened as a systems failure. We need to find out what happened in that hospital so that it doesn't happen to anyone else. The anger we feel is that not enough was put in place to stop the outbreak – things like an infected person being put in a room with someone who didn't have it.
"If through our efforts it means that some other family doesn't lose their mum or granny, then that is justice, that the lives of those who died meant something."
But Margaret Watt, who chairs the Scotland Patients Association, said: "Criminal charges should be brought if it can be proved the hospital was to blame.
"That's what would happen if someone was killed on the street. But the assumption seems to be that it's 'only patients'."
Moya Stevenson, spokeswoman for MRSA Action UK, said: "No-one has ever been held accountable for one death from C difficile or MRSA. They should be prosecuted, because what we are talking about is plain and simple murder."
However, Jackie Baillie, the Labour MSP for Dumbarton, said in her view the problems at the Vale of Leven were "caused by systemic failures, rather than individual negligence".
"All of us have the right to expect that when someone we love goes into hospital they will be treated in clean and safe conditions," she said.
"We now need the public inquiry to go ahead as quickly as possible, so that the families get the answers they deserve."
A spokesman for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said that they had co-operated fully with Strathclyde Police during the inquiry.
"This has been a testing time for many staff and we are pleased that the conclusion of the police inquiry, and today's announcement from the Crown Office, draws a line under the issue of criminality," he said.
Theresa Fyffe, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Scotland, said criminal prosecutions would not necessarily have found the answers that the families of those who died deserve.
"It has also been an incredibly stressful and uncertain time for everyone involved," she said.
The Scottish Government said a new chairman for the inquiry was being sought following the withdrawal of Lord Coulsfield.
Ms Sturgeon said she was committed to ensuring the public inquiry got under way as quickly as possible.
"What happened at the Vale of Leven was a tragedy – it's vital that all possible lessons are learned to prevent it happening again," she said.