THE former minister who directed a public inquiry into the deaths of five children in Northern Ireland's hospitals 12 years ago has said she is "worried and concerned" that the inquiry’s report has not yet been published.
In 2004 Angela Smith established the Hyponatraemia Inquiry when she was acting as a direct rule Health Minister while Northern Ireland's political institutions were suspended. Hearings for the inquiry concluded in November 2013.
Hyponatraemia is a condition which results in a low level of sodium in the blood stream causing the brain cells to swell with too much water and in some cases resulting in death.
New figures obtained by The Detail show that since 2005 there have been 117 deaths registered with hyponatraemia or fluid overload recorded as an underlying or secondary cause of death.
The Hyponatraemia Inquiry examined the deaths of Adam Strain (4), Raychel Ferguson and Claire Roberts, both aged nine.
It also investigated the events following the death of Lucy Crawford, aged 17 months, and specific issues around the treatment of 15-year-old Conor Mitchell who also died from the condition.
The public hearings were over seen by High Court Judge Mr Justice John O’Hara, but the process has been subject to several high profile delays down the years.
The public hearings got underway in February 2012. Click here to see The Detail’s timeline of events related to the inquiry.
Now the minister responsible for setting up the inquiry has called for the publication of the report.
Speaking to The Detail, Angela Smith, now known as the Baroness of Basildon, said: “I am surprised and disappointed it is taking so long to report. The purpose of such an inquiry is to ensure that lessons are learned and 12 years is a very long time.
“It must be very distressing for the families who are still waiting for the findings of this report and I would hope that it can be published as soon as possible. I would also call on the final report to explain the delay in publication.
“Obviously I was responsible for setting up the inquiry but it has been some time since I’ve been directly involved in politics in Northern Ireland so I am not aware of all the reasons for the delay and I am reluctant to criticise without understanding those reasons.
“However, I certainly would hope in the years that have passed since these tragic deaths the health authorities have sought to ensure that any necessary changes have been made within hospitals to prevent the same thing happening again.”
Responding to Baroness Smith’s comments, a spokesperson for the inquiry said: “The chairman has no further comment to make at this time.
“The families and the other interested parties have been kept informed at all stages. A further update will be provided in September. The chairman’s report will explain/address the delay in publication.”
More than 60 doctors gave oral evidence during the inquiry’s public hearings which opened in February 2012.
As previously reported by The Detail, during the hearings a number of doctors and medical staff were challenged about why important information surrounding some of the children’s deaths were not raised at the time.
Mr Justice O’Hara also raised concerns about a “rampant culture of litigation defensiveness" in healthcare here.
In a statement to The Detail a Department of Health spokesperson said: “In its capacity as sponsor of the inquiry, the department has continued to make every endeavour to support the chairman in completing his work."
The latest developments come as The Detail has obtained new figures which show that since 2005 there have been 117 deaths registered with hyponatraemia or fluid overload recorded as an underlying or secondary cause of death.
We requested the figures from the Department of Finance who released figures collated by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) who keep records on the registration of deaths in Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson for the inquiry said it believed that the case of an under 18 in 2006 was that of nine-year-old Claire Roberts. She died in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children (RBHSC) in 1996 but her death was re-registered after her inquest in 2006.