“Good afternoon, you’re through to the Care Quality Commission,” a softly spoken man says into his headset. It is Thursday lunchtime and revelations about the watchdog’s alleged cover-up are leading news bulletins. In the heart of its office in Newcastle, staff are trying to act like it is business as usual, but the screens around them tell another story.
Furtive eyes look up from computers to check flat-screen televisions on which Sky News and BBC News 24 are silently streaming the latest headlines about the CQC’s decision to publish the names of staff accused of covering-up a bungled Cumbrian hospital investigation. Next to one, an LED display shows the number of available staff for calls and the percentage being picked up within 30 seconds (at 96 per cent despite the distractions). The television sets have only been there for the past few months – just in time to give staff a blow-by-blow account of the biggest scandal to hit the organisation. But even without them, the staff would still be up with the latest developments.
David Kewn, 26, is an officer on “safety escalation”, the first person a whistleblower speaks to when they call the CQC hotline. An open tab on one of his two computer screens shows the latest Independent story about the CQC. Next to him, a colleague quickly minimises a BBC article about the same thing.
The Independent spent the day with staff at the CQC’s whistleblowing hotline, listening into calls with the people who hear the frontline tales of shoddy care in Britain. But on a day like today, people have other motivations for calling.
“I’d like to see some conclusion about what has been done about my complaint,” a man shouts down the line. David looks through the notes, explains that the inspector he needs to speak to is on holiday and the man explodes: “I’ve been trying for the last six months, and I can’t get hold of this woman, whoever she is... that’s disgusting, am I not entitled to a return of call? What have you monitored? Show me what you’ve done?”
David puts the caller on hold, his fingers shaking, to call another inspector for him to speak to. But they aren’t answering their phone. Now the caller is apoplectic. “Put me in touch with someone in charge,” he blisters. “I can’t believe what your people have been doing. Have you been watching the news? Bloody hell, what a sham. I thought criminals hide things.”
David’s ears burn as the insults start piling up, despite his attempts to apologise. “Apologise,” the caller screams. “It’s a word in the dictionary. Apology in this day and age is just a song. How many times do the CQC’s shitty cover-ups happen? My dad died in that hospital and was treated like a dog. Would you like it if someone pissed in your mum’s face? That’s what happens in these hospitals.”
The man is one of the centre’s regular callers. His father was diagnosed with cancer and died last year in hospital. He alleges his dad was left in his own excrement and, when his tumour was removed, died of a cardiac arrest because of a reaction to drugs.
Despite the barrage of abuse, David sympathises. “You can understand where he’s coming from,” he says. “He thinks I’m trying to fob him off because that person isn’t available. We don’t have the manpower to call everyone back. The hospital has done an investigation and if he wants it to go further he needs to go to the ombudsman, but trying to get a word in edgeways when they’re that agitated is impossible.”
This is not the first of such calls today. David saw one of the girls crying after one call and another of his friends started the day with abuse. “Apparently a guy called up and said: ‘I see you guys are getting what’s coming to you with all this stuff that’s in the news’. He was basically having a go. My friend asked ‘Do you have any concerns?’ and he said ‘I’ve got hundreds, but you aren’t going to get them, I’ll give them to someone else’. Then he insulted the company and hung up.”
The office is full of the usual corporate motivational slogans, though the day’s revelations cast them in a new light. Letters pasted to the wall spell out “performance” above a cartoon graph charting an imaginary upward line of improvement. More than 300 staff work in the customer service centre on everything from scanning inspection reports to frontline call handlers. David sits in one corner of the fourth floor, one of 14 whistleblower call handlers. Next to him is Hayley Thompson, 26. She has had her fair share of upsetting calls, though more through the raw emotion of hearing their problems than personal abuse.
“It’s hard to distance yourself from the information you get,” she says. “My worst was a lady who lost her baby in really distressing circumstances. The hospital hadn’t given her the treatment she needed and she suffered the loss of her baby with no support at all. With those kinds of calls you just let them talk. It could be 45 minutes or an hour. You can be the first person they’ve spoken to in a long time.”
Last month, 25 per cent more people reported poor care to the CQC than in May last year, figures given to The Independent show, with 763 people whistleblowing via calls, letters and emails. So far this year, the commission has already been contacted by more than 4,600 people. In the whole of last year there were 7,746 cases, and with another six months to go, staff are predicting a large year-on-year increase.
Tracey Forester, head of the national customer service centre, said of the rise. “I think there’s an increasing appetite for people to come forward and air their concerns and their experiences.”
Though it is their investigation of hospital standards that made headlines this week, the majority of whistleblowers call the CQC about standards of care in nursing homes and other social care organisations.
In another call, a woman who has recently attempted suicide wants to complain about her care. “All they do is see me and ask ‘how do you feel?’ But of course I feel suicidal and I want to kill myself. Nothing has changed. I’m still under the care of the same people that are crap,” she says.
Later on, the call-centre managers play an alarming call from earlier in the year. The whistleblower describes abysmal care of the elderly, including women having their heads shaved to save money on hairdressing and washing; patients going malnourished without vegetables; urine-soaked mattresses left unchanged for years; toenails left unclipped for so long they snap off and tear the skin and patients being forced to wake at 4am. The calm voice of the call-centre worker asking “anything else?” punctuates each revelation and spurs another.
The CQC got in touch with investigators and the nursing home has since failed four separate categories in an unannounced inspection and is under further investigation.
Back listening to David’s calls, another comes in to report a chronically understaffed dementia home. “They took a carer off supervision and took a cleaner to look after a patient. The service user is supposed to have one-to-one care all day, but they used a cleaner in the morning doing the supervision and then in the afternoon, nobody. It’s ridiculous. We don’t have enough carers for residents.
“I’m working 12 days on the trot because we’re so short staffed and they’re still ringing me to ask if I can do nights, too. The residents are suffering because we can’t give them the care.”
David takes down her details and looks at the clock. It’s 4.30pm and he is told he can leave home early after his earlier ordeal. He looks exhausted. “I had a discussion with friends who do manual labour for Nissan and they can’t understand how I come home from work tired. But it’s just non-stop.”
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