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The General Medical Council has dropped a more than two-year investigation, prompted by allegedly falsified emails, into an NHS whistle-blower who exposed widespread clinical harm.
Peter Duffy, 61, a consultant urologist who lifted the lid on more than 500 cases of “actual or potential harm” at a hospital trust in north-west England, had faced disciplinary proceedings at the UK’s chief medical regulator over the contents of two disputed emails that were produced a number of years after his whistle-blowing at the trust.
Duffy has raised concerns that the potentially-incriminating emails may have been falsified or tampered with since they appeared in 2020.
Having opened a formal investigation into Duffy around 30 months ago, the GMC has now found that there is no case to answer – partly due to conflicting evidence over the emails in question.
In a 30-page decision letter, the GMC highlighted the “particular regard” it gave “to our inability to place weight” on an NHS-commissioned review of the emails that had found no evidence of tampering or foul play.
The GMC was unable to place any weight on the report into Duffy’s claims of email falsification – which, according to NHS England, was carried out by two sub-contracted firms “on a blind basis” – since it was not fully disclosed to the regulator during the course of its 30-month probe.
Leading IT experts have also highlighted a lack of adequate analysis and evidence around the emails in question, saying that complete disclosure was needed in light of Duffy’s GMC referral and other potential action he faces.
Duffy told Byline Times how the emails, which appeared nearly five years after he lost his job for speaking out on department-wide patient safety harm, could have seen him struck-off and potentially facing criminal charges.
“I think it’s important to highlight, before anything else, just how close we came to a significant miscarriage of justice here,” he said.
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Duffy says the emails could have put him in the frame for negligence and possible medical manslaughter charges, with private investigators having used them to try to “extract a confession” over an avoidable death that he himself had blown the whistle on while at University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust.
Byline Times first reported on Duffy’s IT tampering allegations last year, highlighting a number of apparent inconsistencies and questions raised by the evidence available.
The emails first appeared in 2020, nearly five years after Duffy was forced out of the UHMBT over patient safety disclosures going back 10 to 15 years at the trust’s urology department.
UHMBT was forced to pay Duffy more than £100,000 in 2018 through a constructive dismissal claim.
Although UHMBT combed through more than 3,000 emails in that case – after the judge ordered the release of all communications in respect of the late Peter Read, an elderly patient who died at UHMBT in early 2015 – the two emails in question were not handed over to the tribunal.
Mr Read, 76, died of a stroke brought on by sepsis on 2 January 2015, after delays in changing an overdue kidney stent.
The emails at the heart of the GMC’s lengthy probe, which appeared for the first time in 2020, would shift responsibility for Read’s care onto Duffy and implicate him heavily in the string of clinical errors that led to the elderly Morecambe man’s death.
Duffy challenged the authenticity of the emails when he said they were “sprung” on him during an interview later that year with NHS-commissioned private investigators over Microsoft Teams.
UHMBT, NHS England and the private firm it hired to investigate the trust’s urology services, Niche Health & Social Care Consulting, have all maintained that the emails are genuine.
An NHS England spokesperson said that Niche sub-contracted two companies, which neither it nor Niche would name when asked, to carry out a review of Duffy’s email tampering allegations “on a blind basis from each other”. The two unnamed firms found that there was no evidence of tampering or falsification.
Duffy says he recalls using the term “negligent” about his own practice on the basis of the new emails in the transcript of the 2020 interview with Niche, which he refused to sign.
He said he was “repeatedly told” by UHMBT and by the NHS investigators “that the emails were authentic, that my memory and judgment was at fault… that I mustn’t be doing my own kind of private amateur investigation and that I must trust and not undermine the NHS England investigation”.
A spokesperson for Niche said: “Niche held two meetings with Mr Duffy in October 2020 where they discussed the emails and Mr Duffy was provided with an opportunity at the time. Niche does not recognise this description of those meetings.”
Duffy added: “Of course, if I’d done what I was told, I would have probably pleaded guilty on the basis that these emails were genuine, as I was being told, and on the basis that I’d admitted neglect and negligence.
“Who knows what sorts of sanctions could have been imposed on me then – it’s even possible that it could have ended up going to the Crown Prosecution Service, there now being a folder of evidence with a consultant admitting to neglect, negligence and an avoidable death.
“And, of course, I came horribly close to taking my own life over the shock of this, and the fear of what might lie ahead.”
One of the trust’s elected board of governors, herself a former whistle-blower at UHMBT, has resigned this past week due to the trust’s handling of the Duffy emails saga.
Sue Allison relinquished her governor role on 30 May, citing a “bullying” culture and a lack of internal change since she blew the whistle at UHMBT’s breast-screening clinic around 10 years ago.
She says that she and two other governors have been “supressed” when trying to get answers around Duffy and the emails, as well as around UHMBT’s trauma and orthopaedics unit – another area where patient safety dangers have recently been flagged.
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She told Byline Times that there were serious questions to answer over the emails – which were handed to Niche and to the GMC by UHMBT figures in 2020 and 2021.
“There has to be some kind of forensic examination of the communications that led to those emails being given to Niche in the first place,” she said, “and of the wider communications around that.
“I’m concerned that some of the people from Morecambe Bay with serious questions to answer here have gone on to take up other senior roles in the NHS. And I’m concerned at how far these emails have gone given all the questions raised around them.”
Read’s family has also voiced concerns, saying NHS-commissioned reports into the disputed emails and into Read’s care have been withheld against their wishes from trust governors and the wider public.
Read’s daughter, Karen Beamer, said: “I and the Read family would have been incensed had Peter Duffy been struck off, or potentially worse, over these dubious emails. This is extremely serious – it’s playing with people’s lives.”
Niche has been paid around £5 million through NHS England commissions since it began the work at UHMBT. NHS England has refused to disclose details of other projects for which it has commissioned the private firm during this time.
Aaron Cummins, chief executive of UHMBT, said: “Whilst we respect Mr Duffy’s right to share his version of events in whatever way he feels appropriate, it is important to remember that the recent and extensive independent investigation by Niche Health and Social Care Consulting, commissioned by NHS England and NHS Improvement, looked into all of the concerns raised about the Trust’s urology services, including those concerns outlined in Mr Duffy’s first book.
“That investigation stated that not all the claims in that book were accurate.
“With regards to the claims that these emails were falsified, the two separate independent,
external reviews of those allegations conducted by Niche Health and Social Care Consulting, as part of their investigation, found no evidence the emails in question were tampered with and no evidence they were not sent from Mr Duffy’s NHS hospital email account.”
A GMC spokesperson said that it would not comment on the email “complaints and concerns”.