Police made basic errors in Shipman case, inquiry told

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The Independent Online

An abortive police investigation that failed to uncover anything suspicious about the serial killer GP Harold Shipman was riddled with basic errors, a public inquiry was told yesterday.

The Greater Manchester Police inspector who was alerted to concerns about Shipman kept no written record of his work and did not inquire about death rates at his surgery, which were startlingly high. The investigation was dropped after four weeks, leaving Shipman free to kill at least three elderly women in the six months before he was finally arrested.

The inquiry was told Detective Inspector David Smith of Greater Manchester Police was asked to lead the investigation after a GP, Dr Linda Reynolds, warned the local coroner that an unusually high number of Shipman's patients were being cremated. She was also concerned that Shipman often seemed to be present when his patients died. She knew of eight occasions in a short space of time, but had only witnessed three deaths herself in a 19-year-career.

An undertaker shared her concerns but what happened next was "extremely difficult" to put into a "coherent" order, Caroline Swift QC, counsel to the public inquiry, said.

Det Insp Smith had clearly met Dr Reynolds but had made no notes of what she said. There was no discussion of the number of deaths being registered by Shipman, the detail that led to Dr Reynolds calling the coroner in the first place. Ms Swift said Det Insp Smith failed to interview Dr Reynolds' medical partners and emerged with nothing of "anything of any evidential value".

Either Dr Reynolds did not tell him what had caused her concerns, Ms Swift said, "or ... Det Insp Smith failed to ask the right questions able to elicit from Dr Reynolds the information she would have been in the position to provide had she been asked to do so".

Det Insp Smith's mistakes were then compounded by the local register office, which was asked to provide details of deceased Shipman patients but gave notification of little more than half the cases.

Det Insp Smith then found nothing to back up allegations of impropriety in an interview with Dr Alan Banks, of Tameside health authority, which he again failed to record. Dr Banks, who satisfied himself that Shipman's presence at the death-bed was attributable to him being a "doctor of the old school" failed to run a "straightforward" check on Shipman's death rates and ran a profile of Shipman's practice, which ignored the fact that he sent 92 per cent fewer patients to hospital than the average for a practice in the district.

Michael Shorrock QC, counsel for Greater Manchester Police, said confusion over whether the case was the responsibility of the coroner or the police had hampered the inquiry. The hearing continues.