Reporter Tommy Greene looks back on the changes 2019 brought for NHS Whistleblower Sue Allison

ALTHOUGH it was not without its low moments, 2019 was the year the scales began to tip in NHS whistleblower Sue Allison’s favour.

Her case prompted Health Secretary Matt Hancock to restate his predecessor’s commitment to outlaw the use of gagging clauses in NHS employment disputes, as well as pushing him to pledge that he would “stand with” whistleblowers in the health service.

Even if it remains to be seen whether those statements will translate into substantive policy and cultural change in the NHS, South Lakes resident Mrs Allison’s whistleblowing case against University Hospitals Morecambe Bay Trust (UHMBT) has been catapulted into the spotlight nationally.

Mrs Allison’s speciality – radiography, although she is also qualified do the work of a radiologist – is one of the most severely understaffed in the NHS. She says that, having completed a Master’s degree in 2013, she was fully prepared and well-placed to take on a full-time consultant position in the health service.

But, after reporting a string of missed cancer diagnoses and broader concerns around care standards at a UHMBT breast screening unit the previous year, Mrs Allison says she found her career progression blocked off. She also alleges she and another colleague who raised concerns in the unit were subjected to years of workplace bullying – all of which began to be addressed in court last year.

In addition to the detriment Mrs Allison says she suffered after flagging up poor care, the 58-year-old claims she was “conned” into signing a two non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) which prevented her and her colleague from speaking about their experiences publicly. The NDAs were also challenged in court last year.

Years of insecure work and professional dead ends were to follow, according to Mrs Allison. “I went through the same locum agency as [fellow NHS whistleblower] Peter Duffy – a very skilled man who has nothing going against him - who also couldn’t find work after he blew the whistle,” she says.

During this period, Mrs Allison began to study for a PhD, while continuing to work part-time at the Trust. However, in November she finally resigned from UHMBT after she said a grievance appeal hearing was held 10 months late. At the time, she told said it was “the last straw” and that she had “lost all confidence” in the trust.

Mrs Allison says she quickly found that the professional blacklisting she suspects took place after she blew the whistle had extended to the world of academia. “There are loads of ties between the NHS trusts and university departments. So it wasn’t just that my reputation was trashed in the health service – it’s affected my work across almost every sphere you can imagine.”

In his Freedom to Speak Up Review, a report commissioned after a series of health service scandals with maligned whistleblowers at the centre of each – including the 2004-2013 maternity crisis at Morecambe Bay Trust – Sir Robert Francis QC recommended that the increasingly common practice of blacklisting workers who had blown the whistle be put to an end in the NHS.

Yet, if her claims are found to hold water, Sue Allison’s case would fly in the face of these recommendations – as well as the health secretary’s stated ban on gagging orders in the NHS.

David Wilkinson, director of people and organisational development at UHMBT, said: “We will continue our dialogue with Sue in the hope that we can reach a mutually agreeable solution to the issues she has raised.

“As this matter is subject to legal proceedings and we are still awaiting the outcome of an investigation into Sue’s concerns, we have nothing further to add at this time.”

Some form of consolation did arrive in April for Mrs Allison, however, when it was ruled that the NDA she had signed was invalid and that she should be able to pursue her grievances at Employment Tribunal without being gagged – having a “prima facie [valid] case of whistleblowing detriment”.

A date for the Employment Tribunal case has now been set for April 2021, where Mrs Allison’s blacklisting concerns will also be examined.

But the long and bumpy road towards the tribunal was not one lightly taken, nor does it promise justice or closure for many of the whistleblowers who manage to get as far down it as Mrs Allison has.

“There’s no doubt about it,” she says. “The Employment Tribunal process is a destructive one for everybody involved – except maybe the lawyers.

“There are entrenched tendencies – bordering now on conventions - in these cases whereby solicitors press whistleblowers very aggressively with huge costs threats in order to get them to drop their cases.

“This really has to change, as whistleblowers have in many cases suffered a great deal before they even set out on the path towards having their case heard.”

She says the impact of the past seven years has been devastating, with much of the trauma coming to a head last year: “I’ve had to walk away from not only my job, but my career – which I was pretty good at, because I worked hard to make sure I was good at it.

“The court bills and miscellaneous costs that rack up before you even get to court have put me in a very difficult position financially. And my health, as well as the health of my family, has suffered hugely as a result of the whole ordeal.”

Mrs Allison says she now faces a court battle that is likely to run into six figures – up against a powerful government body – on top of the prospect of never working again.

“I never had any intention of bringing harm or damage to the trust, nor have I ever tried to sabotage it in any way. I just tried to stop harm being caused to patients and to stop someone who was doing this, was protected and was allowed to continue doing it.”