Ex-health chief claims there is ‘culture of fear’ in NHS

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The former head of an NHS trust being investigated over high mortality rates has spoken out over patient safety concerns – in defiance of a legal gag.

Gary Walker was sacked in 2010 as chief executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust for gross professional misconduct over alleged swearing at a meeting. He claims he was forced to quit for refusing to meet targets for non-emergency patients and was then gagged from speaking out as part of a settlement deal. Mr Walker said he warned senior civil servants that he was confronted with the same choices that resulted in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust scandal.

He blamed a “culture of fear” at the highest levels in the health service for attempts to silence critics. Last week’s Francis report into the Mid Staffs scandal recommended a ban on gagging orders imposed on NHS whistleblowers and Mr Walker’s case has been raised in the Commons.

“It’s a simple decision: you have emergency care or you have care that could wait,” Mr Walker told BBC Radio 4’s Today. “It’s not nice to wait but it could wait and therefore we chose as a board – it was not just me – that emergency care should take priority.”

He said he was ordered by the East Midlands Strategic Health Authority to meet the 18-week non-emergency target “whatever the demand” and was told to resign when he would not do so.

The authority said it “utterly refuted” Mr Walker’s claims and acted at all times “in the interest of patients”. Mr Walker said he accepted a so-called “supergag” as part of a settlement of an unfair dismissal claim to protect his family. He told the programme: “This is a culture of fear, a culture of oppression – of information that’s either going to embarrass a civil servant or embarrass a minister. And if you consider that the people that have been running the NHS have created that culture of fear, they need either to be held to account or new people need to be brought in.”