Mr Hunt stressed that the Care Quality Commission (CQC), which operates only in England, must follow “due process” in determining what sanctions can be imposed. But he would back the regulator “absolutely to the hilt” if it chose to take action against individuals, including some who have left the organisation.
The UK health secretary – who only has responsibility for England as health is devolved to Scotland and Wales – described the CQC’s suppression of a report into its handling of a cluster of maternity deaths at a Cumbria hospital as “utterly shocking” and said the way the regulator was set up in 2009 had been “a big mistake”.
Meanwhile, a woman accused of helping to cover up the NHS watchdog’s failure to investigate mother and baby deaths at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay, while she was a press officer at the CQC, has claimed she in fact pushed for greater scrutiny.
Anna Jefferson is said to have collaborated in the deletion of an internal review into inspections at the hospital, along with former chief executive Cynthia Bower and deputy Jill Finney.
But yesterday, the 38-year-old pointed to minutes which purportedly show that she called for an external inquiry after discussing the matter with Ms Bower and Ms Finney. She denied that, after Ms Finney ordered the cover-up and she and Ms Bower verbally agreed to it, she told them: “Are you kidding me? This can never be in the public domain nor subject to FoI [a Freedom of Information request].”
Ms Jefferson, who is on maternity leave from the regulator, said: “I am feeling pretty alone and vulnerable after having done the right thing and pushed for greater scrutiny into how regulation had gone wrong.”
She claims that she does not remember any order for the review to be deleted, and that she and the other two women thought the report was “not fit for purpose”. Ms Bower and Ms Jefferson have also denied being involved in a cover-up.
The CQC’s head of regulatory and risk quality, Louise Dineley, told the investigation by consultants Grant Thornton that Ms Finney had ordered the deletion of her report into the CQC’s inspections at Morecambe Bay and that Ms Bower and Ms Jefferson had “verbally agreed”.
The government is putting £40 million into reforming the commission, to ensure inspections are conducted by experts and result in Ofsted-style reports which give the public confidence about the standards at local hospitals, Mr Hunt said.
Asked what action should be taken against those responsible, Mr Hunt told Radio 4’s Today: “These are very, very serious allegations and they should have very, very serious consequences if they are proved.
“I know the CQC are looking into disciplinary procedures and what can be done, what sanctions are available, whether you can have forfeiture of pensions, all those things. There has to be due process, but it is totally appalling that this kind of thing should happen.”
Asked if he would back the current CQC in taking action which was legally justified against former employees, he replied: “Absolutely to the hilt.”