Two years on from the Mid-Staffs scandal and there are still significant problems in the National Health Service regarding the treatment of whistleblowers, an investigation by Sir Robert Francis has found.

In evidence submitted to the review, many healthcare professionals who had reported sub-standard care described “a harrowing and isolating process with reprisals including counter allegations, disciplinary action and victimisation”.

“Bullying and oppressive behaviour was mentioned frequently, both as a subject for a concern and as a consequence of speaking up,” Sir Robert said, noting that “while incidents and reports are often handled in accordance with good practice, there is a fear shared by many NHS staff that they will suffer adverse consequences if they raise concerns,” and that “nothing effective will be done”.

To help address the situation, Sir Robert has set out 20 principles and a programme of action, including that NHS trusts should appoint a guardian to assist whistleblowers and that a national officer should be instilled to help these guardians, as well as new legislation to protect whistleblowers who are applying for NHS jobs from discrimination by prospective employers. 

The government said today it accepts in principle all of Sir Robert’s recommendations, and will shortly consult on how best to implement them. Addressing parliament, health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the culture challenge must be tackled “head-on so we build an NHS which supports staff to deliver the highest standards of safe and compassionate care and which avoids the mistakes that have led to both unacceptable waste and unspeakable tragedy”.

Also welcoming the recommendations, Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, “it’s blindingly obvious that the NHS has been missing a huge opportunity to learn and improve the care we offer to patients and the way we treat our staff,” and that the “these important proposals – particularly for a new national office of the whistleblower - will provide clear new safeguards and signal a decisive change in culture in every part of the health service”.