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News archive - March 2013

Whistleblowers reveal shortfalls in out-of-hours service

Whistleblowers reveal shortfalls in out-of-hours service

WHISTLEBLOWERS played a significant role in highlighting concerns about the out-of-hours GP service in Cornwall, prompting the provider Serco and the primary care trust to take action, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.

Among the problems identified was that Serco had been unable to fill shifts with appropriately qualified staff, with the result that the out-of-hours service was unsafe. Whistleblowers raised concerns that employees at Serco were altering data about the performance of the out-of-hours service. These concerns had not been identified by routine management controls or by the primary care trust itself. A subsequent, forensic audit by Serco, covering every interaction that passed through the switchboard between January and June 2012, found that two members of staff made 252 unauthorised changes to performance data. As a result, the performance reported to the primary care trust was overstated in seven instances.

Serco had a whistleblowing policy but evidence suggests that whistleblowers were still fearful of raising concerns. The operator and the trust have since taken steps to strengthen internal controls aimed at preventing or detecting data changes, and have been obliged to remind staff about the importance of raising concerns and of the protection available to whistleblowers.

Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said the tampering with figures by Serco staff presented “a false, much rosier picture of its poor performance” in the £32m contract to provide out-of-hours care in Cornwall. "It is simply not good enough that neither Serco nor the PCT detected these problems. Furthermore, I find it deeply troubling that while a whistleblower policy was in place, in practice, Serco’s working culture meant that people trying to raise the alarm felt fearful of doing so.”

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