Leading article: The real lessons of this NHS disaster

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The Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, yesterday described the appalling treatment of patients at Stafford hospital as "ultimately a local failure". This misses the point. For one thing, Stafford is not the only NHS hospital that has put patients' lives at risk in recent years. Basildon and Colchester hospitals were also discovered to have jeopardised safety in 2009.

What is more, Mr Burnham's efforts to quarantine this disaster suggest an unwillingness to face up to the scale of the problem that has been revealed. The failure in Stafford is not just the tale of one badly run hospital, but the failure of a regulatory system that did little to sound the alarm until very late in the day. From 2005 to 2008 Stafford hospital was judged by regulators and the Government to be performing well. It passed many inspections and the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust even achieved foundation status, supposedly the benchmark of excellence.

Yet as yesterday's independent report on Stafford by Robert Francis QC outlines, the hospital was, during this time, drastically cutting staffing budgets and leaving patients to fester in soiled sheets. How did the inspectors miss this? The report says the hospital's management was pre-occupied with cost-cutting and meeting crude targets set by Whitehall. But so too, it would seem, were the regulators. The trust appears to have been judged on the quality of its balance sheet rather than the quality of care offered to patients.

The regulators not only turned a blind eye to the cost cuts, they seem to have rewarded the Trust for it. It is true that the Healthcare Commission, did, in the end, sound the alarm over Stafford after being alerted to higher than usual death rates. But that does not excuse the fact that it – along with other monitoring bodies – missed the problem for years, during which hundreds of patients died needlessly. The NHS's regulators clearly need to overhaul their own procedures.

As for ministers, rather than attempting to present what occurred in Stafford as an isolated example of bad practice, they should examine how their own targets contributed to the distortion of care on the ground. Lessons will never be learnt while the authorities insist on burying their heads in the sand.

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