A radiographer who raised concerns about malpractice in the breast screening unit at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary takes her case to an employment tribunal next week after being subjected to years of bullying.
Sue Allison’s case will be heard on Tuesday April 2 to determine whether a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) she was asked to sign is legally binding.
Mrs Allison, 57, has worked at the unit, which treats patients across north Lancashire and south Cumbria, since 2006, and first raised concerns about bad practice in 2012.
She said although the full extent of the damage caused is unknown, it was proven in 2015 that two people died as a result of their cancer not being diagnosed.
But she says internal investigations were “whitewashed and covered up”.
She was later asked by Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Trust (UHMBT) to sign an NDA which she believes wasn’t legal.
“I was placed in a position with not a great deal of choice but to sign an agreement to silence me,” she said. “Unfortunately the emphasis is on the protection of reputations of senior consultants, managers and directors, while the patients ultimately suffer as a result.”
Mrs Allison, a qualified radiographer for 34 years, says that as a result of her whistleblowing, she was ostracised and subjected to extensive bullying, which eventually caused her to file formal complaints against the trust.
She moved to work at Furness General Hospital in December 2014, after the bullying became so much that she was off work with stress,
“I just couldn’t stay in the department,” she said. “I felt I was being pushed towards the door but I didn’t want to give up on my career.”
Mrs Allison, who lives in Lupton, near Kirkby Lonsdale, said she had been working towards becoming a consultant radiographer at the time.
“I stuck with it for years but it got worse,” she said. “It’s been very unpleasant.
“My career has been completely destroyed. I was bullied and a smear campaign was started, it was horrible.
“I have tried to keep going and not let them get me down but it’s hard.”
Mrs Allison says that in 2015, she was pressured into signing an NDA without legal advice, preventing her from publicly airing her concerns or bringing future claims against the trust.
She has since returned to the RLI, but only works 12 hours a week which she said has been “very financially detrimental”.
She is currently on sick leave having undergone a hip replacement, but accepts she will not work in the NHS again, after finding out last year that she was essentially blacklisted.
Tuesday’s hearing will challenge the NDA Mrs Allison was asked to sign, and is a test case which could have major implications for the future of gagging orders.
In 2013, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that he would ban the gagging of NHS staff in compromise agreements.
But a recent Freedom of Information request uncovered the widespread use of such agreements in the health service to silence staff who raise concerns about harassment and bullying.
“The NHS is a public service; there shouldn’t be anything that management needs to hide from the people who fund and use their service,” Mrs Allison said.
“There’s no reason to hide and cover up. They are supposed to be transparent and learn from mistakes.
“I just think it’s very sad for the patients and it’s also very sad for me. I loved my job but I will never do it again.
“My reputation is absolutely destroyed because people have made sure that everyone in the breast screening service thinks badly of me.
“It shows a culture where whistleblowers are seen as bad people, when in actual fact I cannot see anything more that shows integrity than standing up for other people.”
Last year we also reported on surgeon Peter Duffy, another RLI whistleblower who was forced out of his job after raising concerns and is now practicing on the Isle of Man.
The trust said all the concerns raised by Mrs Allison had already been fully investigated.
Medical director David Walker said: “The safety and care of our patients is our absolute priority.
“We strongly encourage all staff to come forward if they think patients or staff may be at risk.
“This is a really important part of our culture as an organisation – and is evidenced by the fact that we were one of the first trust’s to appoint a full time Freedom to Speak Up Guardian – so that if anyone has any concerns they do not feel they can raise with their manger, there is someone they can speak to who will help to resolve the issue.
“All the concerns raised by Sue Allison were thoroughly investigated at the time. As with every such investigation, opportunities for the trust to improve its practice were identified and action was taken to address this.
“The trust does not use “gagging clauses” that prevent employees or ex-employees speaking out about patient safety or patient care – and has not done so since 2013 when the revised guidance was issued by the Secretary of State.
“It is, of course, a matter of deep regret that any colleague would feel unable to resolve matters with the trust and despite our best efforts to resolve this case we note that there are current Employment Tribunal proceedings listed.
“The trust continues with its internal processes to support Mrs Allison at this time.”
Mrs Allison has set up a crowdfunding page to help pay the legal costs her case will incur.
The page, which can be found here, has so far raised more than £12,500.