Nurse was struck off after undercover film exposed neglect of patients

A nurse who was struck off for secretly filming patients on a hospital ward for a TV programme will launch an appeal today after her plight provoked an unprecedented wave of support.

Margaret Haywood, 58, who had been a nurse for 20 years, was struck off last month by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) after acting as an undercover reporter for a BBC Panorama programme, broadcast in July 2005, which exposed the neglect and ill-treatment of elderly patients at the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton.

The decision by the NMC disciplinary panel caused outrage among senior members of the profession, who wrote to the press to protest. The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) launched a petition in support of Ms Haywood which has attracted almost 40,000 signatures, and she has won the backing of Ben Bradshaw, the Health minister, who described the penalty imposed on her as "unduly harsh".

The episode is highly embarrassing for the NMC, which has lost the confidence of the profession it is supposed to regulate. Supporters of Ms Haywood have pointed out that while the panel acknowledged that the issues raised by the Panorama programme were of an "exceptionally serious nature", involving the failure to deliver "basic nursing care" which "rendered many lives miserable", none of the managers responsible for the neglect have been disciplined – only the nurse who exposed it. The RCN today publishes a survey of more than 5,000 nurses which shows the difficulty that whistleblowers face in getting heard.

Nearly two thirds said they had raised concerns about patient safety but more than a third said they had been ignored by managers. Four out of five said they feared being victimised for speaking out.

Peter Carter, chief executive of the RCN, whose annual congress opens in Harrogate today, said: "More than 39,000 people have signed the RCN petition in support of Margaret Haywood. The decision to remove her from the professional register was unduly harsh and we are considering lodging an appeal. This petition is proof that there are many members of the public and the nursing profession who feel the same."

The scandal of Stafford hospital, exposed in March, where appalling standards of emergency care were allowed to persist for years, showed the "disastrous consequences" of not taking whistleblowers seriously, he said. Incident reports filled in by nurses had been ignored.

"We've had laws protecting whistleblowers for 10 years now but they are not worth the paper they are written on if they sit in a drawer and gather dust," he said.

The RCN has set up a dedicated phone line for nurses to report concerns and called for all healthcare employers to make a "categorical commitment" to protect staff who spoke out.

Joyce Robins, co-director of pressure group Patient Concern, commenting on the case of Ms Haywood, said: "The NMC has become too tangled up in its own rules. These were set up to protect patients, not to protect managers who allow callous neglect and downright cruelty on wards of vulnerable old people. This is a tragic misuse of power and it is NMC leaders who should be sacked, not a caring nurse."