Kent Police officers are making enquiries into the concerning number of ‘avoidable’ baby deaths at East Kent Hospitals Trust.
The investigation, revealed by The Independent newspaper today (May 24), comes while an independent inquiry – commissioned by NHS England and NHS Improvement and headed Dr Bill Kirkup – is looking into the cases of some 200 families who have come forward.
The Kirkup inquiry came alongside a report by the Health and Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB) which found recurrent patient safety risks at the Trust maternity sites at QEQM and William Harvey Hospital and an inquest in relation to the death of seven day old Harry Richford and care of his mum Sarah at QEQM Hospital in 2017.
East Kent Hospitals Trust has already pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to discharge its duty to provide safe care and treatment, resulting in avoidable harm, in the case of the Richford’s. Sentencing for this – which can be an unlimited fine – will be on June 18 at Folkestone Magistrates’ Court before Judge Barron
The Independent says the police enquiry is believed to centre on the possibility of opening a criminal investigation and bringing charges related to corporate manslaughter and/or gross negligence manslaughter.
It may centre on the death of Harry Richford. The inquest had heard of the “panic” after Harry was born by emergency Caesarean section during which his heartbeat kept dropping. Harry died seven days after his delivery from a condition caused by a lack of oxygen. An independent report said he might have survived had there not been a delay in resuscitation at his birth that caused irreversible brain damage.
Coroner Christopher Sutton-Mattocks agreed with that conclusion and said Harry and his parents had been ‘failed.’ The Care Quality Commission later brought the prosecution which East Kent Hospitals pleaded guilty to.
Officers are understood to have been in contact with those on the Kirkup inquiry which was initially launched in February 2020.
The independent review was one of a series of actions to bring in urgent improvements to the East Kent maternity services and examine what went wrong and why in a large number of cases.
The investigation is to examine the management, delivery and outcomes of care provided by the maternity and neonatal services at East Kent University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust during the period since 2009.
The Independent Investigation will aim to complete its research by Autumn 2022.
Detective Chief Superintendent Paul Fotheringham, Head of Major Crime at Kent Police, said: “We received information in August 2020 relating to baby deaths in east Kent hospitals.
“This information is being assessed and detectives from the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate are carrying out a scoping exercise, whilst making a number of enquiries.”
In a statement the Richford family said: “We welcome any police investigation to help uncover the truth and allow learning to happen which will help prevent this happening to any others in the future.”
A spokesperson for East Kent Hospitals said: “We have not been contacted at all by Kent Police, however, should they open an investigation we would of course cooperate fully.
“We thank the families who have come forward to share their experiences of using our maternity services with the independent investigation. We welcome the independent investigation, the lessons that can be learned and continue to do everything possible to support the investigation team in its work.”
County Councillor Karen Constantine, who is a former head of South England for the Royal College of Midwives, said a full public inquiry should be held.
She added: “It’s due to the bravery and fortitude of those families who have stepped forward to respond to Dr. Bill Kirkuk’s independent report that we are making progress toward creating a safer maternity environment. It is of course extremely sad and concerning that a corporate manslaughter charge is now under consideration.
“Notwithstanding a charge being bought, I believe we will need a full public inquiry if we are going to comprehensively understand what has happened and how to implement the steps needed here, and elsewhere, to prevent a repetition of these preventable tragedies and to rebuild public trust in our local maternity services.
“Nothing is more important than ensuring the clinical safety, health and well-being of mothers and their babies. That East Kent Hospitals Foundation Trust has let down so many women and babies is a disgrace, for which they are rightly sorry.
“I’m concerned that these terrible failings and concerns about safety at QEQM will pave the way for a closure or downgrading of maternity services in Thanet. Especially with a larger reorganisation of hospital provision in East Kent currently underway. I can see a scenario emerging where a brand new maternity unit within or alongside the new hospital proposed for Canterbury ( or elsewhere in East Kent), may be proposed. This would be disastrous for Thanet women and is not the answer.”