A whistleblower nurse, who made national headlines by recounting the “trauma” she faced from NHS managers after raising concerns about a colleague’s competency, has aired optimism that her case could lead to cultural change in the health service.
Rebecca Wight left her job at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, a specialist cancer trust in Manchester, at the end of last year.
Her departure followed an 18 month-long fight with bosses to report worries that a colleague’s errors were causing patients to fall ill, and in one case die.
This colleague, she claimed, changed clinical notes to cover up the poor care.
“I am hoping the tide is turning in terms of what happens when people raise concerns”
Ms Wight acquired the national spotlight last week with an appearance on BBC Newsnight, where she said the experience had a huge impact on her personal and professional life.
The nurse said that, instead of listening to concerns in May 2021, managers assumed she simply had a personal problem with the colleague. Despite repeated attempts to raise the alarm, she claimed bosses would not listen.
The Christie, ahead of Ms Wight’s Newsnight appearance, told all staff in an internal memo that the nurse’s claims were “untrue” and that it was “fully supportive” of staff raising concerns.
Speaking to Nursing Times a few days after the full story aired on the BBC, Ms Wight said she hoped her case – and the coverage of alleged failings to catch serial killer nurse Lucy Letby – was the beginning of sweeping cultural changes in the health service.
“I’m pleased people are taking an interest in it,” she said. “And I am hoping the tide is turning in terms of what happens when people raise concerns.
“But last week, I saw a senior NHS leader say the Lucy Letby case should be cause for leaders to pause and reflect – that infuriates me, it shouldn’t take the deaths of babies to make people stop and think.”
Ms Wight said that her optimism about future change was tinged with a feeling of deja vu.
The Francis Report, into poor care at the former Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, recommended a sweeping array of changes to how reports of malpractice from other healthcare professionals are managed, after nurse Helené Donnelly rose to prominence in a similar way to Ms Wight for whistleblowing – and being ignored.
The report recommended that trusts give complainants timely acknowledgement, an action plan, and feedback for concerns raised.
In addition, the report encouraged clinical staff to be vigilant, and make use of these reporting systems.
In Ms Wight’s case, she said these procedures were in place at The Christie, but in her experience only in name: “The Christie had a strict concerns policy at the time.
“Within two days you were meant to have acknowledgement, then you’d have an action plan, and then feedback on your concern. None of that happened.”
Instead, she recalled a manager “folding [their] arms and putting [their] pen down” when Ms Wight detailed her concerns.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said. “Being on a virtual meeting and raising some very significant patient safety concerns.
“I knew at that point [they were] not listening, [they were] being dismissive and kind of just shrugged off my concerns.
“[They] said the colleague had a difficult job. I thought, I’m trying to tell you patients are unsafe. But [they] put down the pen as if to say, ‘I won’t take it forward.’”
Ms Wight described how she felt “shocked but not shocked” by what had happened, and recalled her faith in reporting systems slowly being ebbed away throughout the process.
She claimed that when she threatened to take her concerns to an external body, the Care Quality Commission, she was asked by a manager to sign a form officially declaring it.
“I can’t understand how managers come take the route they take,” she said. “Is it subconsciously done? I still ask the question: why did they not just listen?”
Ms Wight said that, in her view, ongoing improvements to the NHS’s Freedom to Speak Up Guardians system – while noble – will not solve the problem.
She explained: “The natural thing to do is speak to your team when you have a concern, which I did. Then you want to, naturally, go to your managers, which I did.
“And when you reach the brick wall, like I did, by that point you get suspicious and lack faith in any reporting system. It feels like no one takes you seriously, and in my case it was made to feel like I was doing a witch hunt.
“So when I was told by the head of human resources to go to [Freedom to Speak Up], I said I have no trust in internal systems, and had to go externally, so I went go the Care Quality Commission and Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).
“The problem with Freedom to Speak Up is that it feels like passing the buck.”
Ms Wight added: “Particularly when the concerns you have are so serious, you want to go to someone whose full time job it is to make sure patients are safe – the managers – and ask them to take action.”
Looking ahead, Ms Wight said she worried that, in her case, becoming so high profile it might scare nursing staff away form reporting something, for fear of repercussions.
However, she hoped that the support she had visibly received after the story went public would counteract this.
Asked what material changes she would like to see in future, Ms Wight said: “Managers and clinical staff working together better.
“The interface between needs to improve. There’s a huge disparity, we are seen as parties with different priorities.
“Whilst we have differenced the ultimate priority should remain the same – which is patient safety and outcomes. Management and clinical staff should not only raise concerns, but also understand what drives each other. “
The nurse confirmed that she is now seeking to take The Christie to an industrial tribunal, but that she is saddened that it has come to this: “When I first told people about this I thought it was a unique case.
“Then I realised that the tribunal service is clogged with whistleblowing cases. There’s no other way of holding managers to account, the only way is suing them.
“It’s sad that it’s how we have to do it. My final hearing won’t be until 2025; lucky for me, I have a pro-bono barrister who was interested in my case, but a lot of people have to represent themselves.
“Regulation of managers would prevent lots of us from having to go through it.”
Ms Wight reiterated calls, which were echoed earlier this week by Ms Donnelly and Sir Robert Francis, for tighter regulations of managers including a register – like that of the NMC – of NHS leaders.
A spokesperson for the Christie confirmed earlier this week that it had received concerns from Ms Wight, but that it had performed “thorough investigations” and kept the nurse in the loop throughout.
However, the trust said it would not comment further on the case than it already has.