A decision by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to give legal powers to the inquiry into murders and attempted murders by former nurse Lucy Letby at the Countess of Chester hospital has been widely welcomed.
England's Health Secretary Steve Barclay said he had made the decision to put the inquiry onto a statutory footing after listening to the views of families of the victims.
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) said it was "the only way the families can get to the truth of what happened", while the NHS Confederation emphasised it was "vital that lessons are learnt by the NHS".
Evidence Will be Given Under Oath
The announcement will give the inquiry power to compel witnesses, including former and current staff of the Countess of Chester Hospital Trust, to give evidence under oath. It will also mean that evidence must be heard in public unless the inquiry chair decides otherwise.
Shortly after Letby, 33, was given a whole-life term for what the judge described as "a cruel, calculated, and cynical campaign of child murder", the DHSC announced an independent inquiry to look at the circumstances surrounding the deaths and incidents, "including how concerns raised by clinicians were dealt with".
However, the decision met swift criticism from victims' families and their lawyers, who demanded a judge-led inquiry, and from PHSO, Rob Behrens, who called for a statutory inquiry to investigate how clinicians were "silenced and treated as troublemakers", and to ensure that NHS leadership is made accountable, regulated, and held to the highest standards.
Following the announcement that the inquiry would be held on a statutory footing, Mr Behrens said last night: "It is only right that there is such an inquiry into how she [Letby] was able to carry out such heinous crimes for 2 years before her employer raised concerns with the police. This is the only way the families can get to the truth of what happened. It’s the very least they deserve."
Watchdog Calls for Scrutiny of NHS Leadership
Mr Behrens also demanded "a thorough, independent review of NHS leadership", warning that a "culture of fear and defensiveness within the NHS is not isolated to this case" and was "a widespread problem".
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: "NHS leaders will welcome the announcement of the inquiry into what happened in Chester and that it will be on a statutory basis. It’s vital that lessons are learnt by the NHS, its regulators, clinicians and leaders.
"There are of course a series of questions that are being raised by the events in Chester and the inquiry will be best placed to establish the facts of these events and to draw conclusions and recommendations for the Trust and the wider NHS. NHS leaders will support the work of the inquiry in whatever way they can."
The DHSC indicated that it will look to appoint a judge to chair the inquiry, and the Health and Social Care Secretary was working with colleagues across Government to identify a suitable candidate as soon as possible. "This statutory public inquiry will aim to give the families the answers they need and ensure lessons are learned," Mr Barclay pledged.
Statutory inquiries traditionally take longer to reach conclusions than non-statutory inquiries.