The boss of the health trust where at least 90 patients died in a superbug outbreak could be in line for a £400,000 pay-off, it emerged yesterday.
News of the “golden goodbye” immediately prompted Health Secretary Alan Johnson to make an extraordinary intervention into the row over filthy NHS wards.
He ordered the health trust in Kent to withhold any payment to Rose Gibb, who was chief executive there during the deadliest hospital superbug outbreak in NHS history.
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Miss Gibb resigned her £150,000-a-year post less than a week before the publication of a damning report into the ward conditions which allowed the infection to spread like wildfire through three hospitals managed by the trust.
In all, appalling hygiene standards across the hospitals contributed to the deaths of up to 270 patients and the infection of more than 1,100.
As police began an unprecedented investigation into possible manslaughter charges, campaigners demanded to know exactly how much money Miss Gibb will receive after leaving her post last Friday.
Last night Mr Johnson stepped into the row, saying: “I have instructed the trust to withhold any severance payment to the former chief executive of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, pending legal advice.”
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Trust sources last night confirmed that Miss Gibb has been promised a pay-off of ‘more than £100,000′.
One source said she could be paid as much as £400,000.
A pay-off of that scale would be in line with common practice that a person agreeing to leave such a position would receive between two and three years’ pay.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said the Health Secretary had the legal right to require a trust to suspend payment to a former chief executive. Legal advice was being sought over whether any pay-off could be completely refused.
Officers from Kent Police are already reviewing whether mismanagement by chiefs at Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells, Pembury Hospital and Maidstone Hospital amounted to a criminal act.
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As Miss Gibb refused to comment from her £700,000 home near Cobham in Kent, it also emerged she had failed to honour a pledge made in 2004 to clean up her wards.
Her hollow promise followed an undercover BBC investigation in 2004 which exposed poor cleaning and infection control even before the first major outbreak began.
After the TV programme was screened, Miss Gibb promised to sort out hygiene in “six to nine months” – but nothing was done to stop the biggest recorded outbreak of C Diff the NHS has seen.
Despite assurances from the current management that the problem is now under control, Kent Air Ambulance yesterday announced that it had suspended all flights to Maidstone Hospital for the foreseeable future.
It said it had a “duty to patients” to avoid the hospital.
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Last night the trust continued to refuse to say how much Miss Gibb had received after she agreed to step down by mutual consent, saying the “financial arrangements are confidential”.
But Geoff Martin, of campaign group Health Emergency, said: “I have heard from Maidstone NHS staff that Rose Gibb is rumoured to have received a massive payoff from the trust.
“If it’s true, we have a right to know how much taxpayers’ money is involved and it would fuel the scandal even more if it turns out that senior managers have walked away from this carnage with their pockets stuffed with NHS cash.”
He said people at the trust had told him that the pay-out was in the region of £300,000 to £400,000.
The undercover BBC investigation in June 2004 at the Kent and Sussex Hospital revealed bloodstained walls, overflowing skips of clinical waste and a “culture of laziness” among cleaning staff.
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Microbiologist Professor Hugh Pennington said of the footage: “It is a dirty hospital, the worst I’ve ever seen.”
At the time Miss Gibb said hygiene would be up to scratch within “six to nine months”.
“That’s six to nine months of intensive work around a range of areas around recruitment, refurbishment, cleaning standards, further investment in cleaning itself, and in putting local management back in to each of the hospitals,” she said.
But despite her words, little was actually achieved because a little more than a year later – between October and December 2005 – the first major outbreak occurred.
The Healthcare Commission found that the board did not even realise there was anything amiss during this outbreak, meaning they could not put procedures in place to avoid the second outbreakin 2006.
The BBC undercover reporter, Danielle Glavin, posed as a cleaner for a week at Kent and Sussex Hospital. She was given just 45 minutes training before being put to work, and found that infection control systems were poor.
When she noticed that the A&E department was low on paper towels – vital for drying hands to ensure that infections are not passed on between patients – she was told it would be three days before a new batch would arrive.
The cleaners were supposed to wash the water jugs of patients with C. Diff with hot, soapy water. But Miss Glavin saw one simply swill them out in cold water before returning them at random.
Other examples of poor hygiene included a bloodstained gown left on a trolley in an A&E operating theatre for 24 hours, and ingrained streaks of blood on a resuscitation room wall.
The Healthcare Commission said the trust was so obsessed with meeting Government A&E waiting time targets that it took the eye off the ball on hygiene.
But speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, Mr Johnson said: “To suggest that this particular incident reflects what’s happening in the NHS across the country is absolutely wrong.
“There are nurses and clinicians across the country who have dealt with the targets but kept the highest safety standards.”
A ‘deep clean’ at every hospital will help overcome the superbug crisis, Alan Johnson insisted yesterday.
His plan had been lambasted by senior doctors, who said it would not work and was just “pandering to populism”.
Around £50million has been set aside so the walls, ceilings, ventilation shafts and fittings in every NHS ward can be thoroughly cleaned next year.
But a highly-critical editorial in the medical journal Lancet last week said the plan will have little impact.
“They would be better employed making sure doctors, nurses and visitors wash their hands properly, the proven way to stop hospital acquired infections,” it added.