Bupa nurses refused to help dying victim

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STAFF AT a private nursing home refused to help a dying road accident victim because they feared they could have been sued for breach of their employment contracts.

The appeal was made to nurses at the home in Barnet, Hertfordshire, after a motorcyclist crashed outside their door. But the nurses said they could not give first aid because their primary duty was to their patients at the Arkley, a Bupa home for the elderly.

Their action has been criticised by the UKCC, the nurses' regulatory body, which said the nurses "washed their hands" of the accident when they should have tried to provide a basic level of care.

It is unclear whether the staff had first aid training, although this is not compulsory for any nurse, in the NHS or private. The 21- year-old motorcyclist, Steven Sinclair, of New Barnet, died six days later at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

Bill Palmer, who arrived at the scene seconds after the crash, ran to the nursing home for help. "I'm not skilled to help anyone in that condition," he said. "But I was staggered and disgusted when several nurses declined to assist, saying the terms of their employment prohibited involvement.

"The sister told me standing orders dictated involvement, even as an act of mercy, was strictly forbidden. A man's life was ebbing away and it wasn't worth a cursory glance."

Bupa confirmed the nurses were approached. "The nurses were trained for the care of the elderly," said Sarah Stephenson, for Bupa. "People in their care were very vulnerable. If nurses get involved in a situation where they don't have cover and they make a mistake they can be sued.

"If a nurse was in charge of a resident and left them by themselves and they had a fall or a serious medical problem the nurse could be sued and so could Bupa. It is difficult for lay people to understand why a professional person would be so cautious about approaching someone with serious injuries. With hindsight someone might have taken a different view."

But the Royal College of Nursing believes it is difficult to employ rigid rules or guidelines in such situations. "Where there's an accident and nurses are already looking after another patient we would expect them to use a combination of common sense and professional judgement," said a spokeswoman. "We would usually expect a nurse who has first aid experience to help, as we would a member of the public."

The UKCC, the nurses' disciplinary body, said a nurse's first responsibility was to whoever they were looking after. But it added that most reasonable people would expect a nurse whose patient was in apparent good health to go to the aid of an emergency victim.

John Knape, the UKCC spokesman, said: "Nurses have a duty of care which goes beyond the small print of a contract of employment. The duty to help is set out clearly in the code of conduct. At the least they should have provided basic care and comfort to the victim until the ambulance came."

Bupa said it simply followed UKCC advice. "The UKCC lays down guidelines for nurses about where their responsibilities lie and we employ nurses," said Ms Stephenson. "Bupa doesn't proscribe people from helping out. It's not part of the Bupa contract to say, 'Thou shall not step outside and help', but as a professional and as a nurse your first obligation is to your residents."

A police report is being prepared and an inquest will be held.