A senior judge has delivered a stinging rebuke to the Department of Health over its treatment of a former head of an NHS trust that experienced the worst superbug outbreak in memory.
Lord Justice Sedley yesterday gave his ruling as the Court of Appeal awarded more than £190,000 in damages to Rose Gibb, former chief executive of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust in Kent, where outbreaks of clostridium difficile from 2004 to 2006 infected more than 1,100 patients and led directly to 90 deaths.
Ms Gibb went to court after the Department of Health withheld a six-figure severance payment she had agreed in return for her resignation days before a report into the outbreak was published by the Healthcare Commission.
The judge said the trust had offered to compensate Ms Gibb, who was paid £150,000 a year, so it could "sacrifice on the altar of public relations a senior official who had done nothing wrong". Its decision was one that "the Department [of Health] does not appear to have cavilled at," he added.
But when the department later disallowed most of the payment, worth £250,000, it triggered the court action by Ms Gibb.
Lord Sedley said: "The effect of unwarranted departmental interference has been to trap the trust between a rock and a hard place and to expose it, in its attempt to escape, to heavy legal costs." He added: "It seems that the making of a public sacrifice to deflect press and public obloquy, which is what happened to the appellant, remains an accepted expedient of public administration."
The Healthcare Commission inquiry into the outbreak, published in October 2007, was highly critical of the trust's leadership but pinned much of the blame on the Trust's board – all of whom resigned following its publication.
The Commission's report said the trust should review its leadership and the trust ordered its legal advisers to report on allegations against Ms Gibb. But no adverse findings were discovered and a decision was made not to remove her by the trust's Remuneration Committee.
That decision was reversed at a meeting of the committee in September 2007, when it was decided to pay off Ms Gibb before publication of the Healthcare Commission report in October. It was agreed that she would receive £75,000 in lieu of notice and £175,000 compensation. But the trust rescinded the agreement after being ordered by the director-general of NHS Finance, Performance and Operations to withhold the £175,000 compensation payment, which has since increased to £190,000 with interest.
The Court of Appeal yesterday ordered the trust to pay Ms Gibb the full amount of the compensation plus the costs of the court hearings.
Lord Sedley concluded: "Perhaps those responsible will now reflect that, since such blame as the report allocated was subsequently accepted by the trust's board – all of whom resigned following publication of the report – there had been no good reason to dismiss the CEO; and that all this money, both compensation and costs, could have been spent on improving hygiene and patient care in the trust's hospitals."
Patients and relatives affected by the superbug reacted angrily. Former Bucks Fizz singer Cheryl Baker, whose mother-in-law Doreen Ford died at Maidstone Hospital in 2008 aged 77 after contracting clostridium difficile, called on Ms Gibb to give the money to the families whose loved ones died.