Move to restore public trust in Mid Staffs as new chief apologises for latest patient death

A post-apartheid style "truth and reconciliation" commission is being considered by the Government in an attempt to heal deep rifts between the public and health officials in Mid Staffordshire, where hundreds of hospital patients died needlessly, and where examples of substandard care continue to emerge.

Relatives and campaigners welcomed the move but warned this weekend of a "mountain to climb" after months of mistrust and ill feeling fuelled by claims and counter-claims about who was to blame for the failings.

Between 400 and 1,200 more patients died than would normally have been expected between 2005 and 2008, according to the Healthcare Commission's report, published in March. Deficiencies at "virtually every stage" of emergency care were identified in the watchdog's initial investigation, which was triggered by the unusually high patient mortality rates. The body also said that managers had pursued targets and cut costs to the detriment of patient care.

Last night, Antony Sumara, the new chief executive of the Mid Staffordshire trust, apologised to relatives of an elderly woman who died eight days ago, acknowledging that "we didn't get her care right".

This comes just days after an unprecedented three-month investigation by the South Staffordshire Primary Care Trust (PCT) found that many patients were still waiting too long for basic care, such as pain relief and help going to the lavatory.

The PCT, which commissions (or buys) in-patient care from hospitals, identified on-going problems with the quality and quantity of nurses and doctors via a series of unannounced visits, but it acknowledged that progress has been made since the highly critical Healthcare Commission report.

However, much more needs to be done to improve the way that requests for more information and complaints are dealt with, according to both the PCT and commission inquiries.

Julie Bailey, who founded the group Cure the NHS after her mother died at Stafford hospital in 2007, continues to hear reports from relatives about substandard care in the hospital wards. Ms Bailey, who runs the group from her café in Stafford town centre, has welcomed the suggestion of a South African inspired commission – discussed with David Colin-Thome, the Government's primary-care tsar – despite receiving anonymous phone calls warning her to drop her campaign.

Ms Bailey said: "I'm hearing about new cases every week, so I know there are still a lot of problems in the hospital. Things seem to be much better in A&E but the wards, well, basic needs like food and water and toileting are still not being met. We know there aren't enough nurses, and night times are a particular problem, which isn't good enough after so many months. I told both Helen Moss, the director of nursing, and Sharon Llewellyn [the hospital's customer services manager, responsible for complaints] about sick, elderly patients trying to feed themselves with soiled hands, pleading for help but being ignored, in 2007 when my mum was in hospital. That's a long time ago. But I'm willing to consider this new idea if it helps people to understand what patients went through."

An independent inquiry into what went on at Mid Staffordshire was announced by Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Health, last month after months of campaigning by the local community and opposition politicians.

This will not have the same authority as a full-blown public inquiry, but the chair, Robert Francis QC, will hear evidence from staff, patients and families, and could ask the Government for powers to force witnesses to attend.

Joan Cable, 70, an emphysema patient, died on 1 August after three weeks in Stafford hospital. Her daughter, Karen Haughey, 50, was distraught by the standard of care her mother received – on one ward in particular.

Ms Haughey said: "The nurses just weren't interested. Mum would wait hours for painkillers for her osteoporosis when I wasn't there, and she would hold in going to the toilet so she didn't have to ask and then be kept waiting. I would come in at 3 o'clock and mum's energy drink would be sitting in front of her; no one had helped her to have a drink. In the end she needed an IV drip but when it fell out on the Saturday morning, the nurse told me there wasn't a doctor to re-insert it until Monday. I kept asking to speak to a doctor but they put me off every time; I never knew what was going on. So don't tell me things are fine at Stafford now, they're not."

Mr Sumara said: "I would like to express my deepest sympathies to Mrs Cable's family at this very difficult time. I am so sorry we didn't get her care right. We have made some progress to improve care, but we recognise there is still some way to go.

"Sir Stephen Moss, chairman, and I started in post this week. We can't do anything about what happened before, but it is our responsibility now to provide leadership and to improve care."