An NHS children’s hospital has been accused of a “deliberate attempt to deceive” grieving parents over the avoidable death of their two month old baby boy in what an investigation called a “universal failure to be open and transparent.”
The damning new report by the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman found staff at the University Hospitals Bristol Foundation Trust were not honest with Allyn and Jenny Condon about the death of their two-month-old son Ben, who died from a severe sepsis infection in 2015.
The watchdog said it had identified a catalogue of failings by doctors, nurses and managers at the trust who it said had “completely failed” Ben’s parents adding: “It has done this to such a degree that it could be seen, as Mr Condon has, as a deliberate attempt to deceive.
“We do not consider the trust has accepted or acknowledged all the failings we have identified in this report in an open and clear way. It has failed to do that over a number of years.”
The Ombudsman said it could not prove the trust had conspired to cover up errors in Ben’s care but added: “There is no explanation from the trust about why there was such a universal failure to be open and transparent with Mr and Mrs Condon. It is therefore impossible to know whether the steps taken by the trust will prevent the same things from happening again.”
Ben’s father Allyn, a former Olympic athlete, told The Independent there was a culture in the NHS that if families “don’t ask, don’t tell them” adding: “Not only have we not had any help we have been met with brick walls at every turn. Families should not have to fight like we have, it consumes your life.”
Mr Condon added: “It is now six years since Ben’s death and nearly four years since the PHSO began investigating. We hope that the truth of what happened to Ben will now, finally, be clearer and that we are closer to getting the justice we have fought so hard for.
“Our constant desire has been to ensure that what happened to Ben does not happen to another child. Many other families out there are in similar positions to us. Our message to them is to keep fighting for the truth.”
The couple and lawyers from specialist firm Novum Law will be seeking a High Court order later this month to re-open the inquest into Ben’s death.
Ben was just eight weeks old when he died as a result of severe sepsis caused by a bacterial infection after being admitted to hospital with a respiratory virus. He was not given antibiotics until an hour before he died and his parents were not told about the sepsis until seven weeks after his death once Ben had been cremated.
Doctors told his parents blood tests the day before his death were negative for a bacterial infection but in reality no blood test to check for the bacteria was carried out in the week leading up to Ben’s death.
During one meeting in July 2015 three staff were recorded talking about mistakes in Ben’s care after Ben’s parents left the room. Manager Julie Vass, Dr Paul Mannix and Dr Magrid Schindler are heard to discuss deleting a recording of their conversation when they realise Mr Condon’s recording is still going.
They are admit antibiotics should have been given four days before Ben died and say the parents “have a point”.
When they realise the recording is still going one says: “that could get us into difficulty.”
In 2017 the trust admitted the failure to given Ben antibiotics was a material contribution to his death and that it was likely he would have survived if antibiotics had been given sooner. It has since made a public apology to the family.
In its report the Ombudsman found multiple failings in the care of Ben and how the trust then handled his parents’ subsequent complaint and questions.
It said: “Mr Condon is of the view that the reason for this is the trust has conspired to hide from him the true reasons for Ben’s death and the trust’s liability in that. It is entirely understandable from the evidence we have seen how he has reached that view.”
It added there was an “organisational failing” in the way nurses and doctors responded to Ben’s needs on the ward and that they did not listen his parents’ concerns. It said the testing for infection should have been done more regularly and sooner.
Referring to the recorded conversation the report said: “The doctor and complaint manager clearly did have an intent to delete the recording because they specifically discussed this and staff checked whether they could do this on Mr and Mrs Condon’s device. There clearly was an intent to prevent Mr and Mrs Condon from hearing the information that was discussed, even though this was not followed through. The trust did not explain why it thought this was acceptable.
“We find Mr Condon and his wife suffered serious injustice in consequence of the failings we found in the way the trust responded to their questions after Ben died and in its handling of their complaints.
“The trust’s failure to provide open and honest explanations, and answers to their questions over such an extended period of time, created understandable distrust and led the family to question everything they were told.
“This is likely to have exacerbated their bereavement and made it more difficult for them to move on from what happened to Ben. Having to pursue the trust for answers is likely to have caused significant additional distress for Mr and Mrs Condon.”
The Condon’s lawyer Mary Smith, from Novum Law, said no family should have to endure what the couple have been put through.
She added: “hospital trusts and those working for them should be open and honest with families from the outset. It cannot be right that bereaved families are put through further significant trauma by having to battle to uncover for themselves what happened to their loved one.”
Robert Woolley, chief executive of University Hospitals Bristol, said: “We have previously accepted, and apologised for, failings that were made in Ben’s care and our communication with his family. We have accepted the failure to give timely antibiotics made a material contribution to Ben’s death in 2015.
“I would like to reiterate this apology on behalf of the trust and again extend my deepest condolences to Mr and Mrs Condon and their family. We will take forward the recommendations in the report to summarise all the learning and improvements we have made in how we handle complaints and communication with families, together with a robust action plan where required.”