A former manager of the hospital watchdog the Health Care Commission (HCC) has launched a blistering attack on its replacement regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC).
Dr Heather Wood, who led the HCC investigation into a high number of deaths at Stafford Hospital in 2008, said under the new regime, an investigation into appalling standards at the Mid Staffordshire Trust would never have happened.
Appearing at the public inquiry into failings at the trust between 2005 and 2008, she said she could only speak following a direction order by inquiry chairman Sir Robert Francis QC.
She told the hearing she was the subject of a compromise agreement with the CQC not to criticise it upon leaving the organisation last August.
However, with the protection of the direction order, she slammed the new system saying it would not be in a position to pick up future failings and that the CQC did not want to “rock the boat” or be negative about NHS organisations.
Describing the CQC’s response to the Stafford investigation, which concluded on the eve of the HCC’s demise in March 2009, she said: “The reaction of the CQC was that it was an embarrassment.”
And she was told that Baroness Barbara Young, chairman of the CQC at the time, “would never forgive the HCC" for producing the report.
“To me it was very clear this report was viewed with great disfavour by leadership at the CQC,” Ms Wood added.
Asked about the effectiveness of the new regime to regulate care in the health service she said the CQC had abolished national investigation teams in favour of regional staff.
She said: “The CQC appears anxious not to rock the boat with any significant criticism of the NHS.
“If the decision to investigate Mid Staffs had been in regional hands, or if there had been a risk summit with the SHA and other parties, as happens now, the investigation would almost certainly not have taken place.”
During her evidence, Ms Wood described how other regulators such as the Strategic Health Authority and regional HCC staff denied there were problems at Stafford Hospital that would warrant a full investigation.
However, a team of inspectors, which included clinicians and health experts, held discussions over whether to close Stafford’s A&E department for the protection of patients.
Ms Wood told the hearing: “I listened particularly to clinical members of the team about the risks of closing it or keeping it open.”
The investigation team, which began looking into standards of emergency care in February 2008, kept the department open because other hospitals did not have the capacity to deal with an influx of Stafford patients.
She said: “I know one A&E consultant felt that to slap a closure notice on the door might actually, in the end, cause more harm to patients.”
In another visit to the department, Ms Wood said the investigating team had to intervene when they saw a patient on the verge of falling out of bed when no nurses were around.
She told the hearing such failures would no longer lead to investigations of the sort carried out by the HCC.
And in her witness statement to the inquiry she questioned the ability of the CQC to act as an effective independent regulator.
She said: “I have considerable doubts about its ability to carry out its regulatory role effectively in respect of the NHS and to act primarily in the interests of patients rather than organisations.
“My sense of the CQC is that it is firmly part of an NHS establishment with close relationships with SHAs, trusts and other bodies.”
The inquiry continues.