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Sabotage clue to hospital deaths

Police investigating two deaths at a Nottinghamshire intensive care unit fear they may be linked to dozens of similar incidents, spread over more than a decade, in which equipment was apparently sabotaged.

The police team of 20 officers has traced the career of a nurse in her 30s from the Nottinghamshire hospital to eight others in which she has worked. They have found 57 ``incidents to patients'' including other deaths.

The Nottinghamshire detectives have refused to say which hospitals' records have been examined, although they have said all patients and relatives affected have been told. The staff nurse was suspended on full pay in January. The police were called in after an 11-month internal investigation into allegations of tampering with vital equipment during a two-month period in which the two patients died at Bassetlaw District Hospital, Worksop.

Families of the patients involved are expected to meet this week to set up an action group to discuss potential legal action and their need for counselling. Joe Ashton, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, had refused to answer questions arising from the Bassetlaw inquiry.

``If someone has walked into an intensive care unit and tampered with equipment, it is a national problem which Mrs Bottomley should address instead of saying it is a matter for individual trusts, all of which just clam up,'' Mr Ashton said.

Detective Superintendent Peter Coles, who is leading the inquiry into allegations of sabotage at Bassetlaw, yesterday confirmed the investigation had spread elsewhere. But he stressed no one had been questioned as a suspect, arrested or charged over the allegations.

``In the natural course of their investigations police have visited several other hospitals in other parts of the country. These inquiries are continuing,'' Det Supt Coles said. Sources close to the inquiry confirmed yesterday that 16 ``untoward incidents'' affecting five patients at Bassetlaw, and 57 at other hospitals, had drawn the attention of investigating officers.

Allegations of sabotage concern breathing apparatus and pumps used to deliver patients' medication intravenously. The police, who have taken more than 700 statements, have consulted medical experts during the complex inquiry.

Advice has also been sought from Det Supt Stuart Clifton, who led the Lincolnshire police investigation which led to the conviction of Beverly Allitt, a children's nurse at Grantham and Kesteven District Hospital, for the murders of four patients and attacks on nine others. Bassetlaw Hospital is in the same health authority area as the hospital where Allitt, 25, attacked 13 children in 58 days early in 1991. She was given 13 life sentences last year, and a series of recommendations on security and staff vetting followed an independent inquiry.

The latest investigation is more complex because patients in intensive care are more seriously ill than Allitt's victims. Mr Ashton was concerned that health authorities had not begun a systematic review of security.

'The `enemy within', page 3