An NHS mental health trust is the subject of an unprecedented public inquiry relating to the deaths of 1,500 vulnerable people in its care over a period of two decades. The Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry is the first such review ever to be held in England. Established by the government in January 2021, its remit is to probe the deaths of patients in the care of Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (EPUT) and its predecessor trusts between 2000 and 2020.
The inquiry comes after a successful prosecution of the trust by the Health and Safety Executive in 2020, following which the trust was fined £1.5million for failings in the care of 11 patients between 2004 and 2015. The 1,500 deaths being probed by the current inquiry meanwhile involve a mix of inpatients and those who died within three months of being discharged. Most of these deaths relate to patients or former patients of the trust's Linden Centre in Chelmsford. All the patients suffered from mental illnesses of varying severity.
The inquiry, under the chairwomanship of Dr Geraldine Strathdee, the national clinical director for mental health for NHS England, has so far taken evidence from the families of 14 patients who died. Concerns highlighted so far involve the mental and physical safety of those patients while in the care of the trust, in addition to lack of proper follow-ups or other safeguards for discharged patients. One family has told the inquiry about the tragic case of a patient who was admitted to the Linden Centre over concerns he would harm himself. He was nevertheless left alone in the presence of scissors, razors, shoelaces, and electrical cords. He killed himself shortly thereafter, in the same room where yet another patient had committed suicide just three months earlier.
Other families of deceased patients have been critical of the inquiry however, on the basis that it has been established on a non-statutory footing, meaning that it has no power to compel witnesses to testify. Likewise, those witnesses who agree to give evidence to the inquiry do not do so under oath. Some families are boycotting the proceedings for these reasons and are instead calling for a statutory inquiry with wider-ranging powers and a broader scope of investigation.
For its part, the trust insists that it is cooperating fully with the inquiry. Trust Chief Executive Paul Scott said: "We support the ongoing inquiry and encourage service users, family, carers, and staff to share their experiences with the inquiry team."
The inquiry continues to hear evidence and is expected to conclude later in the year.
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