Murder charges could be brought against NHS staff who prescribed and administered large doses of powerful opiate painkillers at Gosport War Memorial Hospital, according to the officer leading the investigation of 456 deaths.
Assistant chief constable Nick Downing of the Eastern Policing Region said the “full range” of homicide offences was being considered at this stage.
An inquiry last June identified GP Dr Jane Barton, a clinical assistant at Gosport, as the person responsible for the “culture” of prescribing on the wards, and said nurses and consultants would have been aware of the effects of the doses they were administering.
However, Mr Downing said that his team were not identifying any individuals or organisations suspects at this stage.
“We are considering all the homicide offences, of which murder is just one of them,” Mr Downing said.
While homicide offences are the current focus, he added: “We’re also looking at health and safety legislation, but we are open minded about what criminality might have occurred.”
To get to that stage, Mr Downing and a team of nearly 100 officers will first collect accounts from family members, which he said may include evidence that has not previously been captured in medical reports.
They will also convene a panel of medical experts to establish in how many cases the drugs prescribed were excessive and to what extent they contributed to the patient’s death.
“Without that I won’t be able to prove or disprove the causal link between opioids being administered and the subsequent deaths of the individual, which are absolutely crucial if we are to move forward.”
This process is expected to take nine months and earlier on Tuesday families who lost loved ones at Gosport expressed their fury at another delay.
“For the families it’s unacceptable, I see that,” Mr Downing said, but said it was important that they were thorough, effective and independent. This includes independence from Hampshire Constabulary which has been heavily criticised for three earlier investigations that it led into less than a quarter of the deaths.
“My overriding intention is to gain their trust and confidence which has clearly been eroded through many investigations, many enquiries over the years,” he added
“They want answers, I want to try and give them the answers but I can’t promise I’m going to give them the outcome they want.”
The Gosport Independent Inquiry determined that excessive doses of diamorphine (heroin) and other painkillers shortened the lives of 456 people, with there likely to be 200 more deaths which could not be established because medical records had been routinely destroyed.
Police have spent 10 months reviewing the medical evidence in the report, before launching the latest investigation.
Earlier on Tuesday families had been clear they believed their loved ones had been murdered.
Gillian Mackenzie, 84, was the first person to go to the police after the death of her mother Gladys Richards in 1998. Speaking ahead of the investigation’s announcement she said she would not be satisfied with “anything other than murder where Dr Barton is concerned”.
Ann Farthing, whose father-in-law Brian “Arthur” Cunningham went into Gosport aged 79 with a severe bedsore and died four days later, said: “They’ve murdered people, there’s no two ways about that.
“It’s not just for us, we’re fighting for the future,” she told The Independent. “It could be your parent, grandparent, mother, father, any of us.”
“It won’t go away until we’ve had a resolution.”
Ann Reeves, whose mother Elsie Devine, 88, died in Gosport after going in with a kidney infection also called for a public inquiry into the Department of Health’s conduct during the inquiry, saying that the NHS, Crown Prosecution Service and police all have questions to answer.
Representatives for Dr Barton declined to comment.
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