The Bristol heart-surgery baby scandal was the worst medical disaster of the last decade. What is less well known is that it has resulted in one of the gravest miscarriages of justice of the present one.
Five men bore the brunt of the blame for the tragedy, in which an estimated 90 children needlessly died. They are the ones who received the heaviest criticism in the report of the public inquiry chaired by Professor Ian Kennedy, published last July.
The Kennedy inquiry sought to avoid pinning all the blame on individuals when it was a wider "systems failure" that lay behind the Bristol tragedy. But it did not shrink from naming names and making criticisms where it felt they were due.
Among those named, only one suffered material punishment (beyond being shamed). Janardan Dhasmana, a heart surgeon at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, has lost £200,000 in salary since he was sacked in 1998. Yet of the five he received the mildest criticism.
James Wisheart, the senior surgeon, and Dr John Roylance, the chief executive of the BRI, played a central role in the scandal and were struck off the medical register by the GMC. But as they had retired before the GMC case began, they have continued to receive their full pensions and merit awards – made for "outstanding achievement" in medicine.
Norman Halliday and Peter Doyle, senior civil servants in the Department of Health who failed to act to stop the surgery at Bristol, also escaped punishment. Dr Halliday retired with his pension and Dr Doyle is still in his post and has been on extended leave since the Kennedy inquiry reported in July. An internal health department review is due to decide his future shortly. Both men were criticised by the Kennedy inquiry for ignoring warnings about the high death rate at Bristol.
Mr Dhasmana, 59, was not struck off but was banned from operating on children for three years and ordered to seek retraining. His career was ended when Frank Dobson, the former Health Secretary, interviewed live on the BBC's Newsnight, said that the GMC had been wrong not to strike him off. The BRI sacked him soon afterwards. He tried to take early retirement but the NHS Pensions Agency refused to let him. It is still unclear whether his pension will be paid – and whether it will be paid in full – when he reaches retirement age in the new year.
Whatever view you take of how – or whether – these men should have been punished, it is clear that Mr Dhasmana has been more harshly treated than the others. Concern about his treatment is growing in medical circles. The President of the Royal College of Surgeons, Sir Peter Morris, held a meeting about his case two weeks ago, and the British Medical Association has investigated his pension rights. There are rumblings about racism, too. Critics say his ethnic origin and deferential nature have made him an easy scapegoat.
Even Steve Parker, the spokesman for the Bristol Heart Children's Action Group, has a kind word for him. "I have some sympathy with Mr Dhasmana in that he seems to have taken the brunt of the punishment, but the real injustice is that the others have got away scot-free," he said.
Indeed. Ministers are, I understand, anxious to avoid stirring up demands for retribution and want to avoid the vindictiveness shown by Mr Dobson. They may be prepared to allow Mr Dhasmana to collect his pension, provided it can be done quietly, and a number of senior figures in the profession are watching closely to see that that happens. But it still looks like rough justice to me.Reuse content