James Lee, chairman of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, has stepped down from his post following the furore surrounding a report by the Healthcare Commission which found that, in just two years, 90 patients at the Trust’s hospitals lost their lives to Clostridium difficile infections.

According to media reports, Lee’s resignation letter to Health Secretary Alan Johnson was partnered with another explaining his reasons for leaving, which named the current climate of government targets, the Trust’s financial dire straits and problems with nursing care as factors contributing to the poor control of infection at its hospitals.

The holy grail of cutting waiting times was “never really achievable at the trust” while it was “struggling with a state that is pretty close to bankruptcy”, he stated, as reported by the Times Online, and added: “I would strongly recommend that the NHS needs to have a root and branch review of all aspects of nursing. I am convinced that something has gone badly wrong.”

His resignation follows that of the Trust’s chief executive Rose Gibb, who left her post just before the report was published last week.

According to the Commission’s investigation, between April 2004 and September 2006, more than 1,170 patients were infected across the trust’s three hospitals and about 90 of these “definitely or probably died as a result of the infection”.

The damning report identified serious concerns about how patients with C. difficile were cared for, particularly during two outbreaks of the infection. Patients were often moved between several different wards, increasing the risk of spreading the infection, it said, and noted that, in some cases, this movement was due to concerns about meeting the government’s target for waiting times for treatment in A&E wards.

Other factors named as contributing to the outbreaks included old buildings, with few single rooms to isolate patients if necessary, and the report pointed out that, in the second outbreak, an isolation ward was not established until four months after it began.

Failure to address problems

It concluded that the Trust’s board did not address problems that were consistently raised by patients and staff regarding the shortage of nurses, poor care for patients and poor processes for managing the movement of patients from one ward to another, and called for urgent changes to improve the care of patients and control of infection.

Commenting on the Commission’s findings, Kent County Council Cabinet Member for Public Health, Graham Gibbens, said that it “clearly shows that the Trust needs to improve the quality of its care including fundamental things such as clean beds, toilets, wards and bathrooms as well as the proper disposal of waste. These basic activities must be regarded as priority issues.”

“Safety of patients is paramount and when people are admitted to hospital, they must have confidence that their needs will be properly met and that they will be cared for,” he stressed.

To this end, the Council has reportedly offered the Trust a loan of a £5 million to help it regain lost public confidence in the hospitals affected.