Stafford Hospital Inquiry: the BBC's Chris King blogs

Stafford Hospital Sign The inquiry into the hospital's failings started in 2010

Chris King, BBC Radio's Stafford Hospital Inquiry correspondent, has been following the inquiry since it started in November 2010.

The campaign for a public inquiry into the failings at the hospital began in 2007.

The blog on this page represents Chris's personal take on events at the inquiry, which is being held at the offices of Stafford Borough Council.

Chris has been at nearly every day's sitting of the inquiry.

For the BBC's regular updates on the evidence, see links below: Stafford Hospital Inquiry: Blog

Stafford Hospital Public Inquiry: evidence updates

BBC coverage of Stafford Hospital Public Inquiry

Blog weekly updates

Friday, 2 December 2011

So that's it. After hearing 181 witness statements over 139 days, the Stafford Hospital Public Inquiry is finally over. The last year has seen some of the most powerful and influential people in the NHS giving evidence not only about what went on in the past, but also the future of this country's health services. But over the past few weeks the inquiry has itself come in for some criticism, especially with the announcement that the hospital's A&E department is temporarily closing overnight.

One of the reasons is that the hospital is struggling to recruit staff. This is partly down to the image it has, and both the inquiry and campaign group Cure the NHS who called for it have taken a lot of criticism as a result. Another common cry is that the £10m spent (so far) on this inquiry would have been better spent on the hospital itself.

The truth however isn't that simple. Yes, the hospital has a problem with poor publicity. Yes, there are some very good things going on there, and yes, the public inquiry is undoubtedly and understandably causing anxiety amongst the staff. It could also be argued that it isn't helping the recruitment process.

But in reality the focus of this inquiry has never actually been on the hospital, rather on the people who should have been keeping an eye on it. No member of staff has been named for their alleged failings, and the last time we heard from a patient or relative of someone who died there was last year. The main reason that bad publicity still surrounds this hospital is not just down to its past, but because there are still some issues which need to be resolved.

You might remember a recent story about a woman who died following an apparent mix up over the administration of a controlled drug. This was taken directly from the papers of the hospital's own monthly board meetings. This in itself shows how far the Mid Staffordshire Trust has come, how it is learning the lessons of the past, and acting as an example to the rest of the NHS.

As for claims that the £10m would be better spent on the hospital, I think even management would admit it wouldn't touch the sides. Over the past two years the Mid Staffordshire Trust has had millions of pounds spent on it as it attempts to solve the problems created by years of apparent mismanagement. Next year it is still expecting to come in with a deficit of £18m. The board knows it needs to change the way it operates and that's what it's doing.

The reason that some would argue that this £10m is money well spent, is that if Robert Francis gets this right, then the entire country will benefit. Some would say that the outcomes are even more important in the current climate.

With the structure of the NHS changing dramatically, how do you know that your local hospital isn't going through the same problems as the Mid Staffordshire Trust? With Stafford's A&E department closing overnight, how do we know that local health organisations will identify any issues and flag them up? And, if you or a member of your family goes into hospital and receives poor treatment, how do you know that managers are not only listening to your concerns, but actually doing something about them?

If Robert Francis gets this right, and the NHS listens and implements his recommendations, then the answer to all three questions of these questions will be "because they've learnt the lessons of what happened at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust".

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

With the evidence finally over, the focus of the public inquiry has changed from what happened in the past to what could happen in the future. The inquiry has been touring the country with a series of seminars to help the chairman Robert Francis come up with the recommendations for his final report.

I caught up with it on its return to Stafford to look at "the patient experience". This wasn't like the hearings - tables had been brought into the public gallery, and proceedings were a lot less formal.

Health bosses from across the UK had been invited to give their thoughts, along with three speakers. The first was from the website Patient Opinion, which allows you to give your views on your treatment and for managers to see what's been said. Next we heard from the chief executive of the South Manchester Hospital's Foundation Trust. But the speaker who sparked the most interest was Victoria Simpson from the John Lewis Partnership.

So the question is "can one of Britain's largest retailers, teach the NHS how to treat patients?"

There were some doubts, with one person pointing out that the National Health Service is very different from a large commercial organisation. The most obvious difference being that a broken TV isn't the same as a cancelled operation, but it shouldn't mean that there aren't similarities in the way that the complainant is dealt with.

Victoria Simpson says that all John Lewis staff are expected to deal with complaints, and that they should be seen as "a gift of feedback". They also have a system to check up on how that "gift" has been received.

The point is, that if you don't know something is wrong, then you can't deal with it. And if you don't deal with it then, nothing will ever improve.

Patients, managers and staff all have a part to play in this process. Patients need to have the courage to speak out when something is wrong, managers need to listen to what they have to say and deal with it, and the staff need to take responsibility for their actions, and speak up when there is a problem.

There is evidence it didn't always happen at the Mid Staffordshire Trust, and the suggestion is that it's still not happening in some parts of the NHS.

The issue which faces the NHS is that the minimum standard expected of it is excellence. Anything less and the consequences could be disastrous. The challenge which faces the Health Service is that there needs to be a change in its culture.

Robert Francis himself told the seminar that it is facing "a tsunami of anger", because people do not feel that they are being listened to. We ignore his warning at our peril.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Monday was a long day for me. I started off at the inquiry before moving onto the Mid Staffordshire Trust's Annual Members Meeting. It's the third time I've been to one of these events and each year the atmosphere has become increasingly more positive. Managers have made it clear that they can't forget the past, but the trust has to move on from the report which saw it labelled the worst in the country.

It was the first time chief executive Lyn Hill-Tout had addressed one of these meetings and she had a difficult message to deliver. She told a packed room that over the next three years they would be treating fewer patients, leading to bed closures and a cut in staff numbers, and even then they're still facing an £11m funding gap.

The last time the board made an announcement like that was in 2005, when they too were under pressure from the government to make savings. Then, like now, there was a massive reorganisation of the NHS going on, and their plans to cut nurses and rearrange wards went unchallenged.

Listening to the management and governors of the trust today, it appears they are painfully aware of the difficult times which lie ahead. They've been quick to try to reassure the local community, and they're adamant that the massive savings they have to make will not lead to a drop in the quality of care. Indeed their mission is to be "recognised as the safest and most caring trust in the NHS".

They also appear to be keen to put into practice what has already been learnt at the public inquiry. The governors of the trust, who have been described as the "first and last line of defence", say they are no longer afraid to hold managers to account. Lyn Hill-Tout told BBC Radio Stoke's Breakfast Show that it's right that the plans should be properly scrutinised. It seems they are trying to be honest as they can about the possible consequences of their actions.

But this is not a situation which is unique to Mid Staffordshire. Every hospital in the country will be facing difficult decisions over the next few years. Nationally, £20bn has to be saved, and the plan is to treat more people in the community. Inevitably budgets will be cut and staff will lose their jobs.

If the inquiry has taught us anything, it's that the NHS has to be open and honest, and listen to the concerns of its patients. The chief executive of the NHS, Sir David Nicholson, told the public inquiry this week, that what happened at Stafford Hospital, has had a big effect on the entire organisation. I suspect we're about to find out just how big.

Friday, 23 September 2011

It's official - Stafford Hospital's former chief executive Martin Yeates won't be appearing at the public inquiry. Instead he's provided a statement which will be read out on 3 October.

This doesn't come as a surprise. In fact it feels like the inquiry chairman has been preparing us for this announcement since well before the summer break. It started with a clarification of how written statements will be treated. Then there was a meeting with core participants which was held behind closed doors, followed by an order telling them not to talk about the health of certain witnesses.

Mr Yeates hasn't spoken to BBC Radio Stoke or any other media organisation since he left the Mid Staffordshire Trust in March 2009, just days before the Healthcare Commission released its damning report. His solicitor has told us on several occasions that he is too ill to talk about what happened at Stafford Hospital.

This is the second time the inquiry chairman Robert Francis has taken the decision not to call him. The first was during the 2009 independent inquiry into the standards of care at the trust. Then, as now, Mr Yeates was examined by an independent medical expert, who concluded that he wasn't well enough to appear.

He wasn't the only one to receive a visit from the independent expert though. The former chair of the trust, Toni Brisby, is also said to be in poor health, and so will give evidence via a video link. Between them they have taken much of the blame for what happened at Stafford Hospital, and previous witnesses have accused them of bullying and deliberately misleading people.

Mrs Brisby did give evidence to the first Francis inquiry, stating that she "wasn't in denial about what had happened at the trust". That inquiry was, however, held in private, and so this decision means that neither will have to face the members of Cure the NHS, who lost relatives at the hospital and fought for this inquiry.

The fact they are giving evidence at all is being seen as a victory for the group, although they are disappointed that Mr Yeates won't be there to answer their questions in person. Both Martin Yeates and Toni Brisby will have their evidence heard on the same day - we'll have to wait and see whether Cure the NHS will find all the answers that they're looking for.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Everyone seems to be using Twitter at the moment and the press pack of the Stafford Hospital Public Inquiry is no exception. For those of you unaware of how it works, Twitter is a mini blogging site which gives you just 147 characters to get your point (or tweet) across. You can also add your views to a particular topic by adding a hash tag, which in this case is #midstaffsinquiry.

Over recent weeks there's been a competition as to who can provide the best Twitter coverage. If a witness says something particularly interesting the race is on to get it onto the web first - Shaun from the Express and Star and Sarah from the Health Service Journal are particularly good at it. I try to do it as often as I can but frankly I have enough trouble following the evidence and writing it in a notepad without tapping it into my phone every two minutes.

Journalists aren't the only ones using the #midstaffsinquiry hash tag either. Both the hospital's former chief executive Antony Sumara and Cure the NHS campaign leader Julie Bailey pass comment on what they've heard. Stafford blogger Diana Smith regularly gives her views too - although she readily admits they may not be the same as everyone else.

The problem comes when people pass comment on my tweets. If somebody replies to me with a particularly derogatory comment about what a witness has said, I can't say anything for obvious reasons. It doesn't mean I'm ignoring you - I just don't want to be quoted in a national newspaper (or a local one for that matter).

Just in case you were wondering, I go by the name of @chrisinstafford. Although I have to point out that all views are my own and not those of the BBC.

Next week - more witnesses from the Department of Health including the former director of Public Health, Sir Liam Donaldson, and the blog will be dedicated to the inquiry's very own green grocer!

Friday, 9 September 2011

The public inquiry returned with a bang this week as two former Health Ministers found themselves in the hot seat. On Tuesday, the public gallery was almost full as everyone flocked to see Andy Burnham.

The normally quiet press area was buzzing with the sound of mobile phones and computer keyboards. But for some it wasn't the appearance of Mr Burnham which caused the most excitement.

TV cameras aren't allowed into the inquiry room so any filming has to be done outside. The problem is that doesn't make for particularly exciting pictures so my colleagues at BBC Midlands Today came up with a plan, and brought in a court artist to capture the scene.

What makes the results even more remarkable is that she did all the drawings from memory!

Helen based herself in the press room, and watching her work was fascinating. As you can probably imagine, her table was covered in charcoal, colouring pencils and paper.

Needless to say she attracted a lot of attention from people passing through especially from members of Cure the NHS who were included in some of the pictures. They spent a lot of time trying to spot themselves, and there was even talk of getting one of the pictures framed.

Next week should be an interesting one at the inquiry, we'll be hearing from some of the most important powerful people you've never heard of - the civil servants.

Friday, 2 September 2011

So here we are again. I can't believe it's almost two months since the inquiry broke for the summer. I kept checking the inquiry website just in case anything had changed, and there was a rather concerning moment when it didn't work at all. And judging by the e-mail I received from the inquiry press office, I wasn't the only one who'd noticed either!

There was also great excitement when the witness list came out, although to be fair there are some quite big names on their way, starting on Tuesday with former Health Secretary Andy Burnham.

But the last two months haven't been entirely inquiry free. I've spent at least four days compiling a time line of the major events in the Stafford Hospital story. It goes all the way back to 2001, and currently stretches to 20 pages. In fact it's so big that I've colour coded it (which took an hour) and even put page numbers on so that it's easier to follow.

The reason it took so long is that I had to trawl my way through six and a half note pads cross checking them with the transcripts to check what was actually said. It has however been an extremely useful exercise because it's not until you put the dates together that you realise how astonishing the story really is.

You can see all the times that management denied there was a problem, all the visits made by people who didn't see anything wrong on the wards, despite the letters and complaints which seemed to prove otherwise.

There appeared to be lots of warning signs. Yet, there seems to have been little evidence heard so far at the inquiry, that these warnings were properly heeded.

If there's one lesson which everyone can learn from the story of Stafford Hospital, it's that the little things can make a big difference when it comes to people's lives.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Thursday was the final day before the summer break and end-of-term-itis had hit the inquiry room. Somebody had brought in cakes for everyone, and I'd considered taking in a game like we used to at school, but I wasn't sure that playing Hungry Hippos in the public gallery would have gone down too well.

I'm not sure how I'm going to cope over the next few months. I think at some point I'll start to get withdrawal symptoms. Looking back over the past few months it has been quite incredible really. We've heard from some VERY influential people, to the extent that one day they'll be giving evidence to the inquiry and the next they'll be on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. We've also heard from some organisations which I've never heard of, but all have had a part to play in the Stafford Hospital story.

There have been some interesting revelations too. The former chair of the Care Quality Commission, Baroness Young, revealed for the first time why she'd left the organisation. The Health and Safety Executive revealed it's reached a "stalemate" with the CQC over who should prosecute hospitals. There are issues coming out of this inquiry that don't just affect Stafford, but have wider implications for the whole NHS.

When we resume in September we could hear from some even bigger names when the Department of Health starts to give its evidence. I haven't seen the witness list but it could result in an appearance from the chief executive of the NHS and even some former government ministers.

Needless to say I'll be there in my uncomfortable chair, with a notepad in hand and a cup of strong coffee in the other, staring at three large TV screens, in a room with no natural light. I honestly can't wait!

In the meantime, if you live in Stafford Borough and you have a story you think I should know about, you can contact me via e-mail on bbc-stafford@bbc.co.uk or call BBC Radio Stoke's Stafford office on 01785 251538.

Friday, 17 June 2011

On Wednesday the public inquiry reached a major milestone hearing its 100th day of evidence. For those of you who like statistics, it has called 137 witnesses, the word "hindsight" has been used around 389 times, and I'm on my sixth note pad.

But day 100 will be remembered for something very different. It had started out like any other - the chairman thanked everyone for their hard work over the past few months, and expressed his gratitude to the public who had attended so regularly. It wasn't until the witness came to her closing remarks that it all started to go wrong. The lights went out, the large TV screens in the public gallery turned black, the speakers and the hum of the computers fell silent. There had been a power cut!

Normally on these occasions there would be an adjournment but the chairman was unfazed and told the witness to carry on regardless. The problem was, with no speakers, we were left straining to hear what she was actually saying. Luckily we were only on a half day so there wasn't too much disruption but that wasn't the end of it.

On Thursday morning, the first hint I had that something could be wrong was when I reached the Queensway roundabout and the traffic lights were out. Having made it to the car park I headed for my office and noticed that none of the buildings had any lights on. That's right, it had happened again.

Luckily by the time I got to the inquiry room, the borough council had fired up their generator, but there were no lifts, and perhaps most crucial of all no air conditioning. This meant that the public gallery felt a bit like a sauna. Barbara on security opened a door to let the air flow through a bit but that only served to block my view of the transcript screen so I had to swap chairs.

About an hour later we took an early break as the borough council wanted to switch its generator off so we could go back to the mains - apparently they were waiting for us to finish. The air conditioning was switched back on again to help cool the room, and having taken my jumper off, I quickly put it back on again as it went from feeling like the Sahara to the Arctic.

Just in case you were wondering, I'm reliably informed it was down to a faulty power cable and it's all been sorted out now. Although that's what they said on Wednesday too.

Friday, 3 June 2011

It's been a short week at the inquiry, but one which has been full of surprises. The first came when I turned up at my office in the County Buildings in Stafford to discover a large steel gate blocking the entrance. You'd have thought I'd have learnt by now - it happened to me last year too because the county council always takes an extra day after the Whitsun bank holiday.

But the problem is my computer was locked in there too. I tried with limited success to send an e-mail from my phone, so reverted to the traditional method of journalism which involved a pen, a pad of paper and using the aforementioned mobile to talk to somebody!

We also learnt this week that the inquiry is to have an extended summer break - the chairman announcing he needs an urgent operation for an unspecified medical condition.

But the perhaps the biggest surprise was a phone call I received from my BBC television colleagues in Birmingham. This Sunday, the Politics Show in the West Midlands is going to be talking about Monitor, the regulator which decides whether an NHS Trusts should be given Foundation Status, and which will also play a big part in the Coalition government's plans for the future of the NHS. The reason they wanted to talk to me though was Monitor have just finished giving evidence to the inquiry.

I've been on TV before, or more specifically the back of my head has! It's generally when I get in the way of a camera filming a press conference, but this was my first proper face-to-face interview. It took place in my office, which did need a little bit of tidying. Giles, the reporter, suggested it made it look like a "busy local radio office". I wasn't sure the boss would see it that way, so hid a few bits of paper.

As you'll see in the final piece it's slightly different from what I normally do. When I'm on the radio I have a script in front of me, but this would be off the top of my head. I had practiced what I was going to say (alone) in my kitchen at home, but the key is to know when to stop talking. Apparently it all went quite well.

If you want to see the results for yourself, and you get your TV pictures from Birmingham, it'll be on BBC One this Sunday from midday, and if you don't it'll be on the BBC iPlayer soon afterwards. I just hope my nose doesn't look too big!

There is more on the subject on Patrick Burns' blog. Patrick is the BBC's Political Editor for the Midlands.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Technology is vitally important for the public inquiry. Every table in the hearing room has at least one computer on it. Most of the evidence is stored on a central database, and the public gallery is full of massive TV screens. But the thing about technology is - sometimes it goes wrong. Only yesterday the chairman found his desk surrounded by the ladies of the secretariat after his computer threw a wobbly. In the end it turned out he'd dropped a folder on it.

Microphones are also a constant source of amusement in the public gallery. If you don't treat them right they tend to bite back. You can almost guarantee that at some point during the day somebody will get too close, or breathe on one which creates a sound like somebody is firing a cannon at a bell.

On one occasion the problem got so bad they had to stop the proceedings. I will fully admit it was partly my fault. I could hear a high pitched tone, asked for it to be sorted out, and the next thing I knew it was if a large ship was making its way through the inquiry room blasting its fog horn. Needless to say that led to an unscheduled break.

But there is one piece of equipment which takes priority over every other, and if it stops working the inquiry is thrown into chaos. I am of course talking about the tea and coffee machine! Hell hath no fury like a bunch of solicitors and journalists deprived of caffeine. When it does happen, Barbara on security is forced to turn tea lady as she heads down the corridor to fill up flasks full of hot water as quickly as she can. It doesn't satisfy everyone but I shudder to think what would happen if she didn't.

BUNNY UPDATE ... BUNNY UPDATE ... BUNNY UPDATE ... BUNNY

Speaking of Barbara, I know it's been a while but I promised to update you on the fate of her collection of chocolate rabbits, which by the end also included lambs and chicks. They were split between local children and the elderly. I think she kept one for herself too.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Apologies - it's been a while, but a mixture of holidays and local elections and the inquiry means I've not had a lot of time on my hands. I'm writing this particular blog from the press area on a table nestled between the gents' and the disabled toilet. Outside it's raining and I've just wrestled with the stopper on the door so that I can hear the evidence as I type.

The mood inside the public gallery is rather subdued today as we're listening to evidence from the Care Quality Commission's Director of Intelligence Richard Hamblin, and I think there's a sense we're being blinded by science. It's not his fault - he's here to tell us about the methods the CQC uses to try to identify problems within an organisation, and there's lots of jargon and acronyms. Don't get me wrong - it's all important stuff in terms of the inquiry.

Oh, hang on - somebody's just closed the door again... it's alright we've found a wedge...

...sorry, as I was saying, what Richard Hamblin is saying is actually quite important. The Chairman, Robert Francis, has to make recommendations for the future regulation of the NHS so he needs all the information he can get about the current system. I however am struggling to find something to say about today's evidence. There are a couple of nice paragraphs in his witness statement but so far he's not really said anything about the hospital.

As you can probably tell I'm facing a bit of a dilemma: do I admit defeat and do something else, or do I hang on in the hope he might say something which adds to the story of the hospital? The thing is, if I leave now, I could miss something (yesterday, the most interesting bit came towards the end). I think I'll stick with it for now, I just hope I'll have enough to tell Tim Wedgwood on this afternoon's Drivetime programme.

Five hours later...As predicted, my story came with the last question. Lucky I stuck around really.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Walking into the public inquiry for the first time can be a rather daunting experience. One person described it as being "a bit like watching a foreign film, without the subtitles". The problem is there are so many acronyms and organisations, that unless you know what everything means, you spend half of the time trying to work out what's going on.

For me it's a slightly different problem. Because I've spent months listening to the evidence, I now have a good working knowledge of how the NHS is currently organised. The big challenge is trying to explain to the people who are listening.

That's why if you've heard my reports on BBC Radio Stoke over the past few weeks, you'll know that I've probably explained the role of the West Midland's Strategic Health Authority (SHA) 15 times. I've also had to explain Foundation Trust Status, Serious Untoward Incident Reports (SUIs) and Hospital Standard Mortality Ratios (HSMR)... the list goes on and they all played an important role in the story of Stafford Hospital.

I don't make any apologies for repeating myself day after day, because there's no point in skirting around what certain organisations do, because unless you know their role, the rest of it won't make sense either. The way that the NHS is made up is complicated, but it's also my job to make it more understandable. I just hope that it is.

There is however a problem with all this - because the structure of the NHS is about to change all over again. Which means my plans for a book on the life and times of the NHS may have to be put on hold!

Friday, 15 April 2011

How many people died as a result of the standards of care at Stafford Hospital?

It's a question that journalists and medical experts alike have struggled to answer. Stories about the hospital normally say "400-1200 more than would have been expected" . The problem is, those figures are widely accepted to be unsafe. Those numbers came from a draft of the Healthcare Commission report which was leaked to a national newspaper. The final report which exposed the problems at the hospital didn't include those figures, and the first report by Robert Francis also refused to put a number on it.

The debate goes back further than the release of the HCC report to April 2007. An organisation called Dr Foster Intelligence published a league table of NHS Trusts with higher than average death rates. In the West Midlands there were six trusts featured in the report, including the Mid Staffordshire Trust. The rankings were based on a system called Hospital Standardised Mortality Ratios (HSMR). In the case of Stafford the HSMR would be worked out by looking at a hospital of a similar size and type. It would then work out how many people would be expected to die from certain procedures and conditions within that hospital. They would then use figures provided by the trust itself to see if the number of people dying was higher than average. If there was a big difference, then they would warn managers that there could be a problem.

In the case of the six West Midlands trusts highlighted in 2007, all of them blamed the way the data sent to Dr Foster had been recorded. It also appears that just one (Mid Staffordshire) had a significant problem with the quality of care, and ironically the next year (when the HCC was investigating the problems) the Trust went from one of the worst in the country to one of the best.

There's been a lot of discussion at the inquiry this week about whether a high HSMR automatically highlights problems in the standards of care. In the case of Stafford Hospital it provided a very good indication, but we've heard this week that it could be one of several reasons for it. That doesn't mean it's one that shouldn't be taken seriously though. What we've heard is that the West Midlands Strategic Health Authority Commissioned a report into why the figures were so high, but didn't actually go into any of the hospitals mentioned to check if there was a problem. Many of the witnesses we've heard from admit that's what they should have done.

So back to the question I posed at the start of this blog… how many people died as a result of the standards of care at Stafford Hospital? My honest opinion is we may never know, and in a way it doesn't matter. It should be shocking enough that people were allowed to lie in their own mess for hours, that they weren't given the medication they needed, and in some cases were left without food or water. For relatives of the deceased, that's what matters, not the figures.

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Public Gallery is a bit like a local pub without the alcohol. You've got your regulars like Julie Bailey and the other members of Cure the NHS who are there almost every day. They're not the only ones... there are several retired healthcare workers, including a former manager from Cannock Hospital, and a former chairman of a Community Health Council - a publicly run watchdog which was disbanded in 2005 - who believes that the government should bring them back.

Other familiar faces come along once or twice a week. There is a doctor who once treated Colonel Gaddafi, and one man who lost his father at the hospital regularly travelled all the way from Kent to be there. The size of the audience normally depends on whose giving evidence as people choose which witnesses they want to see. The hospital's outgoing Chief Executive Anthony Sumara attracted a large crowd, as did the South Staffordshire Coroner, the former head of nursing Helen Moss, and the ex-Stafford MP David Kidney.

But there are some people you don't recognise who come along for the first time. We sometimes have future witnesses who attend to see how the proceedings work (the more high profile people tend to sit in the inquiry room though). It's easy to spot a legal representative too. They normally have a small suitcase and are scribbling furiously. You can tell they're not press because they don't sit in our section, and are generally dressed quite smartly!

There has been some concern about the number of people who are actually coming along, but apparently there are public inquiries where you never see a single member of the public. So if you look at it like that, it's actually relatively well attended. Although if you do get a chance, I would definitely recommend coming along to hear what's being said, as it could have a massive impact on the future of the NHS.

BUNNY UPDATE

I've been writing this blog since last year and up until now nobody really spoke to me about it. That was until I mentioned the chocolate rabbits. So in order to keep everyone happy, the numbers have now swelled to more than 20, and the rabbits have been joined by chocolate lambs and chickens. A decision on their future is expected in the next few weeks…. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, 01 April 2011 (and no, this is not an April Fools)

You might think that the public inquiry is a serious and formal affair, but actually you'd be wrong. Yes the subject is serious, and yes the proceedings are formal, but there's also a lot of laughter too. For me it's become like a second workplace, with a whole new set of colleagues.

But a collective madness appears to be kicking in, which is epitomised by the colony of chocolate rabbits which seem have taken over the front desk where people sign in. There are currently more than a dozen of them and they're all covered in gold wrapping with a red collar. It started out with just one medium-sized bunny, which was soon joined by another one… and now it seems that every day another has been added. They go from big to small, and some even have names.

They belong to Barbara on security. It's her job to keep everyone in order, and she's the one who kicks me out of the public gallery if I hang around too long at lunchtime - but most importantly she's the one who keeps the tea and coffee stocked up. The fact that there are so many rabbits just goes to show how much people appreciate what she does and how she does it, as she gets on with everyone.

The thing is though, at some point that colony is going to have to be broken up, because let's face it, chocolate bunnies are meant to be eaten. Some people have jokingly said they might steal one. That suggestion is always followed by sharp intake of breath, as the consequences would be no joke!

Friday, 25 March 2011

Before I joined BBC Radio Stoke I was self employed, and that meant I had the joys of having to fill out a tax return form. I'll be honest: I needed a lot of help from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, and was left under no illusion that I am a better journalist than an accountant. So just imagine my delight when I turned up on Wednesday to discover we would be going through the hospital's accounts.

I am not entirely sure why I was surprised, as we were hearing from the Trust's former Director of Finance John Newsham. I started out quite well. I know the difference between a deficit and a surplus but then we started to dig a little deeper, and when phrases like 'recurring deficit' started slipping in, I started to glaze over. Even the inquiry counsel Tom Kark had to ask what certain terms meant . (I am not sure whether that was for his benefit or ours, but either way it did not do me much good.)

At one point we started discussing whether a loan to the Trust had been included in a report of a surplus in the budget. I had written down that it had not, and after 10 minutes of complex financial talk the inquiry team came to the same conclusion. What I do know is that management had to save millions of pounds.

Perhaps more confusing was the account of how many people actually lost their jobs at the Trust. What we do know is some posts were not filled, and that management wanted to make even more people redundant. We came up with a planned total of 330 jobs, but we still do not know how many of those jobs actually went - or were closed.

When I left the inquiry I had to lie down in a darkened room with a stiff drink, but when I turned on the TV, there was BBC News explaining the implications of George Osborne's budget….

Friday, 18 March 2011

Although the week was a short one at the public inquiry I still seemed to spend most of it sitting on uncomfortable chairs scribbling down what people had to say. If I was not in the inquiry room, I was back on my 'day-job' with Radio Stoke away at coroners' courts reporting on inquests - which is why this blog is a little late.

This week I also seem to have spent a lot of time talking to other radio stations. On Friday I was on BBC Radio Leicester talking about the public inquiry, because they were interviewing the parents of a man who died as a result of his treatment there.

The biggest challenge though was working out what to say on the You & Yours programme on Radio 4. They rang me on Wednesday asking if I would do an update on the inquiry for them. Needless to say I jumped at the chance, but my problem was trying to sum up what had happened for an audience which was not necessarily familiar with the story.

I was given around five minutes on-air to cover it, but that included a insert of Julie Bailey talking about what had inspired her to start her campaign.

My notes currently run to two-and-a-half A4 notepads and one A5 pad, covering the five months of evidence. Needless to say summarising that lot was not going to be easy. I was told I had to answer five questions, and so I started working on it at home the previous night, but called it a day at 10pm because I had brain freeze. When I resumed at work the next morning my putative answers ran to six minutes - and that was after just 3 questions and without the audio! So I decided to stick with some of the issues which could affect people across the country. Even so there were still bits I eventually had to leave out.

That got me thinking though - if I had struggled to summarise the evidence so far, then the inquiry chairman Robert Francis has a massive job on his hands. The hearings are expected to last until at least July, and there are so many areas to cover. His first report ran to two volumes, totalling almost 800 pages. The way things are going I might need a fork-lift truck to help me carry my notes on the findings of this inquiry!!!

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See: entries previous to 18 March, 2011

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