The beleaguered Southern Health NHS trust has been lurching from tragedy to farce – with the deepening of its on-going crisis appearing largely of its own making. And its account of its actions this week have only caused further damage to its reputation.

Hundreds of deaths

The core problem has been the horrendous saga of incompetence and neglect spanning years, with hundreds of unexpected patient deaths which regulators have concluded the mental health trust, which covers a large part of southern England, failed to investigate and learn from.

This included the tragic case of the drowning of disabled 18-year old Connor Sparrowhawk – which was found to be preventable and exposed a catalogue of other similar, heart-breaking cases.

This April, the Care Quality Commission found the trust was still failing to protect patients from harm.

On top of this, it’s alleged that huge contracts were awarded without due process to firms run by associates of its chief executive, Katrina Percy (above).

One company was paid over £5M for a contract which was tendered for £288,000. Another was given a contract worth £600,000 for which – incredibly – it didn’t even have to bid.

Even one of the trust’s own governors has branded the trust “a dictatorship” and “corrupt.”

Huge pressure

There’s naturally been huge pressure for chief exec Katrina Percy to quit her £240,000 a year role. But she steadfastly refused – becoming a hate figure for many bereaved relatives – before eventually appearing to cave in late last month.

This should finally have been the time for the trust to draw a line under its problems, put a new senior team in place, decisively and visibly address its patient safety issues and start the long, hard road to restoring confidence – vital for all the people (and their families) coming under its care.

Further reputational damage

But no: the trust seems to have gone out of its way to court more reputational damage. Instead of severing its ties with Percy, it shuffled her sideways into an ‘advisory’ role within the same organisation – on the same £240,000 package.

What’s more, it did so without any apparent due process. It emerged this week that this role was created for Percy to shift into: it didn’t exist before, it wasn’t advertised and she was the only candidate considered.

It all looks like a fix. And an unnamed individual involved in her appointment confirmed to the press today that “she refused to step down without a fight” and demanded to be given the new role as a condition for giving up her position as chief exec.

I can only assume the trust must have had overwhelmingly good reasons for agreeing to this, given the outrage it was obviously going to provoke. But it’s hard to imagine what they could be.

No credible defence

And as if that wasn’t enough, to compound all this, the trust hasn’t done anything to help us understand its actions. It seems to have made no effort to prepare for the outcry that was bound to follow the latest revelations about Percy – including the BBC documentary which aired this Wednesday evening.

While the documentary probed into the whole tragic story in some depth, you need only look at this brief interview snippet with trust chairman Tim Smart to see what I mean.

It should have been obvious what questions would be asked about Percy’s convenient slide into another role on the same salary, but Smart seems caught off guard with nothing convincing to say.

Humility is always needed in such situations of course, but someone in his position should surely have commanded some degree of control over the conversation and given an articulate, plausible explanation for the trust’s actions. And he would have been foolish not to have rehearsed beforehand – with someone on hand to put him through his paces.

Instead: he sat there looking terrified; he appeared disingenuous by trying to dodge awkward questions; and he gave sparse, robotic answers which do nothing to make his case.

Classic case of a chronic crisis

All in all, it’s a classic case of a chronic crisis that an organisation has consistently failed to get under control.

While it started with fundamental mismanagement with the most tragic of consequences, the trust has compounded this with actions which appear to the outside world to be bizarre and which, to cap it all, it seems whollly unable to explain.

A text book case of what not to do.

UPDATE OF 19 SEPTEMBER 2016: Chairman Tim Smart has now resigned as the crisis rumbles on.


Tariq Khwaja is a crisis communications consultant with TK Associates. See more on our crisis communications services.  And click here to register for our blog posts and news.