The former chief executive of the hospital where Lucy Letby murdered seven babies said he first heard “serious concerns” about the nurse in June 2016 – a year after she was linked to a series of unusual infant deaths.
However, Tony Chambers, who left the Countess of Chester hospital shortly after Letby’s arrest, said he was told at the time that she was an “enthusiastic, capable and committed nurse”, despite the fears of senior doctors.
Letby, 33, had by that time murdered seven babies and attempted to murder six others on the neonatal unit where she had worked since 2012. She was moved off the unit in July 2016 when senior doctors demanded action following the deaths of two triplet brothers.
Consultant paediatricians had been raising concerns about Letby’s connection to suspicious incidents for months but she was not reported to the police until May 2017. She was arrested a year later.
Hospital executives have been criticised for failing to take action sooner that would have stopped Letby’s attacks months before she was taken off the unit. The health secretary, Steve Barclay, has ordered an independent inquiry into why Letby was not stopped sooner.
Chambers, the then-chief executive, said on Saturday that his leadership team had always been “prepared to go where the information and clinical reviews took us”.
Speaking in detail for the first time about his involvement in the case, Chambers told the Observer that the concerns were escalated to him for the first time in June 2016 following the deaths of the triplet brothers – taking Letby’s killing spree to seven in a year. This was more than double the average number of deaths in a year on the neonatal unit.
He said he took “prompt action” including to move Letby off the neonatal unit – which he described as a “non-prejudicial action to ensure safety” – and initiated three reviews.
However, none of these reviews were tasked with investigating whether Letby had harmed the babiesin her care.
The subsequent subsequent trial found she had murdered babies by injecting them with air and tried to kill two babies by poisoning them with insulin in the year to June 2016.
Detectives have now asked experts to examine the medical records of more than 4,000 babies at both Liverpool Women’s hospital and the Countess of Chester, spanning back to 2010 when she did shifts as a traineenurse.
Chambers said: “The board and I were told [in June 2016] that Lucy Letby was an enthusiastic, capable and committed nurse who had worked on the unit for four years. We understood there was nothing about Letby’s background that was suspicious; there were no apparent issues of competency.
“Her nursing colleagues on the unit thought highly of her; the neonatal unit manager described her as ‘an exceptionally good nurse’.”
Dr John Gibbs, one of the consultant paediatricians on the unit, told the Observer that the executives could have taken “more definitive action” by February 2016 at the latest. By this time, Letby had murdered five babies and attempted to kill another three.
However, Chambers appeared to blame senior doctors for failing to spot that two newborn boys had been poisoned with insulin in attacks on 5 August 2015 and eight months later on 9 April 2016.
In both cases, the results of blood tests were reported back to the neonatal unit but their significance appears to have been missed at the time.
The results were uncovered nearly two years later when Dr Stephen Brearey, the lead consultant paediatricianon the unit, was asked by police to examine the records of twins and triplets as part of the police investigation.
Chambers said: “These blood test results were the only strong evidence of potential harm and would have materially altered the focus of subsequent inquiries and actions if they had been raised with me or any other senior manager in August 2015.”
Brearey, who was the first to alert an executive to Letby’s connection to unusual deaths and collapses, told the Observer that there was an “anti-doctor agenda” among the hospital’s executive team which, he said, explained partly why Chambers and his senior team treated the consultants’ concerns as “a case of doctors picking on a nurse”.
But Chambers said: “I do not accept there was an ‘anti-doctor agenda’. I never saw the consultants’ concerns in the way you describe; we were prepared to go where the information and clinical reviews took us.”
Chambers has been interim chief executive of a number of NHS trusts since quitting his £160,000-a-year post at the Countess of Chester within weeks of Letby’s arrest in July 2018. He stood down as interim chief executive of the Queen Victoria Hospital, in west Sussex, on 2 June this year.
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