Gosport Memorial Hospital nurses Anita Turbitt silenced by bosses over Dr Jane Barton opioids

This week’s report on the NHS opiate scandal reveals a group of nurses raised concerns about Dr Jane Barton (pictured) but they were silenced by Gosport Hospital bosses 

Night nurses Anita Tubbritt and Sylvia Giffin first realised something was wrong at Gosport Memorial Hospital as long ago as 1991. 

Working on a 20-bed ward run by Dr Jane Barton, they would arrive on duty in the evenings to find to their horror that many patients – even those expecting to be discharged within days – were hooked up to pumps called syringe drivers filling them with the strong opiate painkiller, diamorphine.

The nurses believed some patients on the ward were, quite simply, dying when they should have lived.

Bravely, the two blew the whistle. They told the hospital’s bosses, thereby exposing an apparently horrific scandal.

And yet, astonishingly, rather than being thanked, they were met with what appears to have been a conspiracy of silence by the entire medical establishment.

Even worse, they were accused by doctors and other nurses of ‘making waves’.

The hospital authorities held a series of meetings behind closed doors about their allegations, but this did nothing to stop the reckless treatment of Dr Barton’s patients on the ‘continuing care’ ward in the hospital’s Redclyffe annexe.

It would be another eight years before a relative made the first complaint to police – over the unexpected death of her mother at the hospital in 1998 – after countless more needless tragedies.

That was when Gillian MacKenzie told police that her mother Gladys, recovering from surgery after a broken hip, had been at the hospital for rehabilitation.

Gladys was preparing to go to a nursing home and had been walking with a frame when she was admitted. The 91-year-old died five days later after being given diamorphine to ‘sedate’ her.

Meetings were held to discuss Gosport War Memorial Hospital (pictured) nurses' concerns but were later branded 'detrimental to patient care and relatives' peace of mind' 

Meetings were held to discuss Gosport War Memorial Hospital (pictured) nurses’ concerns but were later branded ‘detrimental to patient care and relatives’ peace of mind’ 

The hospital insisted she had died of natural causes, but on her arrival Dr Barton had written in her medical file: ‘A frail old lady, not obviously in pain. Please make comfortable. I am quite happy for nursing staff to confirm death.’

As Gillian Mackenzie has repeatedly pointed out, however, her mother was not there for palliative care – she went in for rehabilitation.

The question is why was this patient – and, as we now know, hundreds of others – was allowed to die when those two nurses had warned years before that the ‘extensive’ use of diamorphine at Gosport Memorial Hospital was killing people? Why did no one listen to them?

Documents recording the hospital meetings into the nurses’ allegations all those years ago have been seen by the Mail.

At the first meeting in July 1991, called by Gosport’s patient care manager Isobel Evans, the two nurses – along with other colleagues also working nights – expressed fears ‘some patients’ deaths were being ‘hastened’ when it was not necessary.

They said patients given diamorphine, prescribed for pain relief, were not always in pain and that the drug was used indiscriminately. 

They also claimed the settings on the syringe drivers used to deliver the diamorphine into the patients were fixed by day staff so they could not be adjusted to a lower dose by the night nurses.

At the end of the meeting, the two nurses were told to talk to Dr Barton ‘if they had any reason for concern on treatment prescribed, as she is willing to discuss any aspect with staff’. 

Whether they did see Dr Barton is not clear but this suggestion was unusual to say the least. 

It meant they were being asked to open their hearts to the very woman who had responsibility for the patients they were concerned about.

Whatever the case, by October 1991, their worries over patient deaths from excessive drug use in the Redclyffe ward had not gone away. Another meeting was held, this time overseen by an elderly care expert.

The minutes for this meeting show that Miss Giffin reported that a female patient had been prescribed diamorphine when she was ‘in no obvious pain’.

She told the meeting that a ‘male patient who was recovering from pneumonia, was eating, drinking and communicating when he was prescribed diamorphine with a syringe driver over 24 hours’.

Mrs Tubbritt complained that even a female patient ‘awaiting discharge’ had received the painkiller. 

The minutes of the meeting say: ‘Staff are concerned that diamorphine is being used indiscriminately. There are a number of incidents which are causing the staff concern. But there… are too many to mention.’

The disturbing allegations from the nurses kept coming in.

Families of the elderly patients who died at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital have said they will not stop fighting until those responsible have been brought to justice in a court of law

Families of the elderly patients who died at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital have said they will not stop fighting until those responsible have been brought to justice in a court of law

By November 1991, an internal memo from the hospital’s patient care manager to nursing staff was copied to Dr Barton, who knew the names of the two whistle-blowers. 

It said the nurses were still worried over the prescription of ‘diamorphine to certain patients’ in the Redclyffe annexe.

In December, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) was involved.

In a letter to the Portsmouth hospital authorities, an RCN official wrote: ‘I have been contacted by a staff nurse (Anita Tubbritt) employed on night duty at Redclyffe annexe of Gosport Memorial Hospital. 

Her concern was that patients with the annexe were being prescribed diamorphine who did not always require it. The outcome being that the patients died.’

Yet still nothing changed. Inquiries into the allegations petered out and, as we now know, the killings went on. 

So was there a deliberate cover up? Many believe so. They point to the fact that an investigation finally held into the high number of deaths at the hospital by Professor Richard Baker, an adviser to the inquiry into serial killer Harold Shipman, was only published in 2013. 

That was 11 years after it was commissioned by the Chief Medical Officer and ten years after it was completed.

The official explanation for the delay is that it formed part of the evidence for police investigations and other legal proceedings.

Known as the death audit, it concluded there was an ‘almost routine’ use of opiates at Gosport Memorial and that a ‘remarkably high’ proportion of dead patients had received them.

The audit also suggested the phrase ‘please make comfortable’ – used by Dr Barton for 91-year-old Gladys and found in many medical notes at Gosport – became a euphemism for starting a patient on strong painkillers before death.

Today Mrs Tubbritt is 54 and lives in a small house in Gosport with her husband Anthony.

She refused to talk this week about how she warned of the ghastly goings on 27 years ago. ‘I am still trying to put this behind me,’ she said.

As for Miss Giffin, she sadly passed away some years ago. Her daughter Lucinda said this week: ‘She never talked about the deaths or Dr Barton to her family when she was alive.’

However, I spoke to other medics who worked at the hospital and remember when the two nurses stood their ground.

One said: ‘I think Dr Barton was made the scapegoat. She was signing the death certificates. 

‘But there were day nurses also to blame who administered the medication that Dr Barton, and other doctors, prescribed without questioning the rights and wrongs of it.’

Another added: ‘This was a ward for very ill patients. Some were far worse than their relatives believed. But, yes there was a culture of ‘letting patients go’ when it was not necessary and no-one took much notice of what the nurses said.’

Shockingly, that now appears to be true. Take the evidence given by one nurse, Pauline Spilka, to a 2001 police inquiry into Gosport Memorial deaths, which failed to lead to prosecutions.

The nurse said she had never heard of a syringe driver before she worked there. She later learned it was used to give drugs to seriously ill patients. ‘It was also clear to me that any patient put on a syringe driver would die shortly after. 

‘During the whole time I worked that I do not recall a single instance of a patient not dying having been attached to a driver.’

If only Gosport Memorial Hospital bosses had believed two night nurses ten years before. How many lives, we must ask, would have been saved?

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