Julie Bailey with the Francis Report earlier in the year.
They’re running Julie Bailey out of town. The poison pen letters, foul-mouthed phone calls, slashed tyres, shit through the letterbox, boycott of her cafe and attacks on her mother’s grave have become too much.
Stafford’s upstanding citizens, or a good number of them, want her gone. So she is leaving her home and business, and looking for a better place.
‘People come up to me in the street and just start bawling,’ she told me. ‘I can’t go out by myself. I always need someone with me’”
Bailey had been the public face of the campaign to highlight the cruel conditions inside Stafford Hospital. How many people had their lives cut short is uncertain: the Healthcare Commission said about 400. We know for sure, however, that nurses left food and drink out of patients’ reach; that those in agony screamed for pain relief that never came; that the thirsty had to drink water from flower vases. For many, Stafford Hospital was a torture chamber.
A proportion of the nurses ‘didn’t really want to be on the ward caring for patients and showed total disregard for their welfare,’ Bailey said when the report was published. And, of course, Stafford’s managers and the managers of the NHS in Whitehall did not want to know. Bailey started fighting after her mother went into this death trap. ‘Over a period of eight weeks they managed to destroy a strong, brave woman.’ Bailey remembered. ‘She was left begging for her life.’
Now the fight is over and a terrified NHS if reforming. But far from celebrating Julie Bailey’s achievement in bringing the scandal to light, and, we should not forget, saving Stafford patients from an early death in the process, Stafford has turned on her.
One caller told her they hoped ‘she dies on the way to hospital’ and she received a card ‘thanking’ her for her “hard work in closing Stafford Hospital”. The card, which has been passed to police, reportedly read: “Thank you for closing Stafford hospital, Ha, Ha, Ha, you better now spend more time watching your mother’s grave.”
It’s not just thugs. Stafford’s worthies are not keen on praising Ms Bailey either. Two friends on the borough council proposed a motion to thank her and her fellow campaigners ‘for their invaluable contribution in highlighting the need for improvements in patient care’ and to ask the authorities to do what they could to identify her abusers.
The council leader didn’t like it. The motion was ‘too evocative’, he said, and ordered an anodyne alternative instead.
Why are they hounding her? She has helped prevent her neighbours’ suffering, and maybe saved lives. A short answer is that Bailey took on powerful interests: the NHS, the borough and county council, which were both criticised by the inquiry, and the Labour Party, which cannot face what happened in the hospital on its watch. But there is more to it than the powerful turning on a woman who challenged them.
I don’t agree with Conservatives about much at the moment, but when they talk about the cult of the NHS, I can see their point. People don’t want to know about abuse at the hands of doctors and nurses. They will read about the incompetence of managers, certainly, and the danger of cuts to hospital budgets. But they do not like news that the people who care for them – before whom they lie powerless and vulnerable – are not always the angels of hospital dramas. Or as Bailey puts it, ‘the public doesn’t want to believe that the NHS is unsafe, even though small general hospitals, which are jacks of all trades and masters of none are dangerous.
And suppose the scandal closes the whole hospital. (It is unlikely, but possible.) Stafford is not poor by the standards of the West Midlands. But it remains over-dependent on the public sector – the county council, the Staffordshire Police headquarters, the prison and the hospital. In other words, Stafford hospital does not just provide treatment but much appreciated jobs and income.
Stafford today is not angry about neglect but about threats to services and the local economy. Forty thousand people have signed a petition against a proposal to close Stafford’s A&E department . Some are in denial. When I mentioned the scandal in passing a few years ago, I received furious phone calls from readers claiming that the stories of death and vindictiveness were all lies. Many people in Stafford cling on to that comforting illusion. Others may not be wholly irrational, however. If you think you won’t be mistreated, or if you think that standards have improved, you may want an A&E close by just in case.
Whistle blowers are rarely treated as heroes. Those around them wish they had not brought disgrace on their company or government department or town or tribe or sect: even if what they said was right – especially if what they said was right. By breaking taboos and speaking plainly, they delight the company/department/town/tribe/sect’s rivals and enemies, and expose those around them to danger. If you want to know why truly free societies are so rare, don’t just think about dictators and hierarchies but consider how hard it is to go against everyone you know.
In Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, Dr Thomas Stockmann infuriates a small Norwegian town by warning that contaminated water is filling the local baths – a lucrative tourist attraction. He’s right, but the town’s people turn on him, just as they have turned on Julie Bailey. If they admit the water is dangerous, they will have to spend a fortune on cleaning up the supply, and the bad publicity would destroy the tourist trade.
His brother, Peter, who is also the mayor, tells him to stay quiet.
Peter Stockmann. You have an ingrained tendency to take your own way, at all events; and, that is almost equally inadmissible in a well ordered community, The individual ought undoubtedly to acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community–or, to speak more accurately, to the authorities who have the care of the community’s welfare.
Dr. Stockmann. Very likely. But what the deuce has all this got to do with me?
Peter Stockmann. That is exactly what you never appear to be willing to learn, my dear Thomas. But, mark my words, some day you will have to suffer for it–sooner or later.
When I spoke to Julie Bailey she sounded very tired. She’s lived in Stafford all her life. Now her neighbours have driven her out for refusing to subordinate herself to the community. She’s looking for a new home – ‘a caravan would do’ – a long way away.
They believe that she’s made sure that when people hear Stafford’s name they will think of the hospital scandal.
I believe – or at least hope – that they have made sure when people hear Stafford’s name they will think of the town that persecuted Julie Bailey for telling the truth.