The programme – titled Undercover Hospital Abuse Scandal – centred on Whorlton Hall, a privately-run NHS-funded unit with 17 beds in County Durham. A reporter worked shifts for two months undercover between December and February.
“The footage captured by Panorama shows sickening abuse of vulnerable people”
In shocking footage, reporter Olivia Davies filmed patients with autism and learning difficulties being deliberately provoked by staff who then physically restrain them.
In one example, a woman who was known to be afraid of men was taunted by several male members of staff while she was in an obviously distressed state in her room.
They told her that more and more men, up to around six, would come into her room if she was not quieter, which they described to her as “pressing the man button”.
In another example, a female member of staff said that a man who was being physically restrained would have his personal possessions removed from his room and paraded past him as punishment.
“The safety and care of our patients and residents is of paramount importance”
A police investigation has now been launched and 16 staff suspended by the hospital’s owner, Cygnet, which only took over running it at the turn of the year.
The Care Quality Commission gave Whorlton Hall a “good” rating after inspecting the facility in 2017, though it was also visited in May last year in response to concerns raised by a whistleblower.
It found no processes in place to assess or monitor the impact of staff working excessive hours, according to a report published at the time. Staff were working up to 24 hour shifts and the service relied heavily on bank and agency workers, it said.
Dr Paul Lelliott, deputy chief inspector of hospitals (lead for mental health), at the CQC, said: “The footage captured by Panorama shows sickening abuse of vulnerable people.
Dr Paul Lelliott
“We found the provider in breach of regulations and told them to address these issues,” he said. “It is clear now that we missed what was really going on at Whorlton Hall, and we are sorry.”
Dr Lelliott added: “We will urgently explore ways in which we can better assess the experience of care of people who may have impaired capacity, or even be fearful to talk about how they are being treated because of the way that staff have behaved towards them.
“I want to be clear that the majority of people with a learning disability and/or autism are receiving good care from caring, professional staff – even in hospitals that are delivering care to people who are a long way from their home and family,” he said in a lengthy CQC statement.
Whorlton Hall, part of the Danshell Group, was recently acquired by Cygnet, which said it was “shocked and deeply saddened by the allegations made against members of staff”.
It said: “We have suspended all the members of staff involved, simultaneously informed all relevant authorities, including the police, who have now instigated an inquiry and we are cooperating fully with their investigation.
“We have taken the initiative of transferring all the patients to other hospitals,” it said in a statement. “The safety and care of our patients and residents is of paramount importance.”
It added: “Those implicated in this programme have betrayed not only some of society’s most vulnerable people but also the thousands of people at Cygnet who work daily with dedication and compassion to look after the people in their care.”
The film comes eight years after Panorama also exposed the abuse at Winterbourne View, which sparked government promises to reform the system and provide more services in the community.
In response, Barbara Keeley, shadow minister for mental health and social care, said: “It is horrifying that this has been allowed to happen.
“This is yet another appalling case in a catalogue of recent scandals involving the cruel and callous abuse of people with learning disabilities within the care system,” she said.
“After the Winterbourne View scandal the government pledged to close such units, but eight years later we have another case of horrifying abuse,” she noted.
She added that a Labour government would invest £350m a year “to see autistic people and people with learning disabilities moved from these units, to be supported in the community”.
“It is unacceptable that eight years after Winterbourne View abuse has not been stamped out”
Harriet Harman, Labour MP and chair of the UK Parliament Human Rights Committee, said she had written to the government urging it to act over the “appalling abuse” revealed in the programme.
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, described it as “utterly shocking” and said the behaviour of the hospital’s staff was “utterly deplorable and frankly totally inexplicable”.
“It is unacceptable that eight years after Winterbourne View abuse has not been stamped out,” he said. “Care England wants to work with the health and care system to see more people cared for in local communities.”
He added: “It is essential that commissioners, the regulator CQC and providers of care homes, supported living and other housing settings work together to increase community capacity for people currently in hospitals.”
Care England said that it would ensure that it worked with the CQC as it started the next phase of its investigation into other care settings.
The programme was broadcast a day after the regulator called for action to fix the “broken system” that led to people with a learning disability or autism being segregated in hospital.
The call was made in an interim report, setting out early findings from a CQC review of restraint, prolonged seclusion and segregation for those with a mental health problem, learning disability or autism.
Via an information request sent to providers, the CQC was told of 62 people who were in segregation, including 42 adults and 20 children and young people – some as young as 11 years old.
In response, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said he had ordered that the care of every patient in long term segregation or seclusion be reviewed by specialist independent advocates.