NHS Foundation Trust watchdog Monitor has sent a task force of top clinical experts and specialists into Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS FT to drive a “rapid improvement of services”.

The move follows an investigation into standards of care by the health and social care regulator the Care Quality Commission, which unveiled a catalogue of horrors including, according to media reports, blood stained floors, curtains and equipment and soiled beds in its A&E department.

According to the Commission, the Trust has high mortality rates for emergency admissions and other serious failings include “inadequate arrangements” to treat children with a lack of specialist paediatric staff, as well as breaches of infection control standards, for which it has already been issued with a warning.

Although the Trust has made some progress towards improving its services, the rate of progress and achievement in designing and implementing effective actions has not been fast enough, and Monitor has expressed doubt that its Board “currently has the capacity to deliver the improvements necessary within an acceptable timescale”.

Consequently, the regulator says it has been forced to use its “formal powers of intervention” to secure faster service improvement. “High quality patient care should be every hospital’s top priority and we are taking swift action to ensure that progress on this is accelerated,” explained Dr William Moyes, Monitor’s executive chairman.

“Swift action is needed at Basildon to nip problems in the bud,” added CQC chief executive Cynthia Bower, and she warned that, without “radical improvement”, the Trust’s registration with the care regulator – which, from April next year is mandatory for all trusts – will be affected.

News of the failings at Basildon came hot on the heels of Monitor’s formal intervention at Colchester NHS FT last week, removing Richard Bourne from his position as chair of the Trust after the watchdog ruled that it is consistently failing to deliver on targets and is therefore in significant breach of its authorisation as a foundation trust.

According to Monitor, the decision to intervene was spurred by: the Trust’s “failure to comply with healthcare standards; its failure to exercise its functions effectively, efficiently and economically; and serious and wide ranging concerns as to overall governance and leadership at the Trust”.

Foundation trusts were set in law in 2003 to give high-performing NHS trusts greater freedoms to move away from central government control and give local communities responsibility for delivering acute healthcare services, the idea being to give FTs more autonomy in managing their own affairs, with more financial and operational freedom, while being assessed by an independent regulator.

Regulation in question?
Unlike NHS trusts, FTs are not performance managed by the Department of Health through strategic health authorities, and following news of the failures at Basildon and Colchester the Patients Association launched a stinging attack on healthcare regulation, with its director Katherine Murphy saying the current system is in need of urgent reform.

“The new system will not introduce the kind of rigorous on site assessment that is so desperately needed so that the public can have some confidence in what they are being told about their local hospital”, she warned, and also called for a radical reform of the complaints handling system to help better highlight potential issues.

And health service regulation took a further beating this week after public-private healthcare data analyst group Dr Foster Intelligence claimed that thousands of patients unnecessarily lost their lives in hospital last year.

According to its annual Hospital Guide, 5,024 patients admitted with low-risk conditions died in hospital in 2008. Furthermore, it found that 12 trusts significantly underperformed across 13 patient safety measures and that seven were not compliant with National Patient Safety Agency alerts.