A mental health trust in crisis after being named the worst in the country spent more than £800,000 on spin doctors in a year.
Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust had been rated ‘inadequate’ four times in six years by the Care Quality Commission when it sought advice from a public relations firm.
The public health watchdog subsequently said it had made ‘significant improvements’ – prompting a local MP to question yesterday what had happened behind the scenes.
Labour’s Clive Lewis, who represents South Norwich, told the BBC he was ‘aghast’ at the cost.
He added: ‘I think there are genuine questions about how this money has been spent.
Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (pictured) had been rated ‘inadequate’ four times in six years by the Care Quality Commission when it sought advice from a public relations firm
Labour’s Clive Lewis (pictured), who represents South Norwich, told the BBC he was ‘aghast’ at the cost
‘If [they’ve] been using public money to tell the CQC that there isn’t a problem, then I’d like to know about it.’
NSFT appointed PR consultants Hood & Woolf in September last year, when it was facing a new CQC inspection.
It was paid at least £814,752, during a period when an independent review by Grant Thornton auditors found the trust had lost track of patient deaths.
A report into the deaths was criticised by the mother of a man who died in the trust’s care for allegedly being ‘watered down to spare bosses’.
A leaked draft version showed the trust’s governance was described as ‘weak and inadequate’.
But ‘governance’ was replaced by ‘controls’ and another section on a ‘culture of fear’ among staff was cut out altogether.
NSFT and the auditors said changes were made as a result of fact-checking.
There was further upheaval in September when chief executive Stuart Richardson announced he was leaving.
A report into the deaths was criticised by the mother of a man who died in the trust’s care for allegedly being ‘watered down to spare bosses’
Hood & Woolf – which handles crisis management and offers major change programme support according to its website – insisted it had ‘absolutely no involvement’ in the review process.
A source familiar with the trust told the BBC the amount paid to the PR firm was ‘shocking’.
He added: ‘Spending such eye-watering amounts on spin doctors comes across as rather unethical and, quite frankly, unnecessary.
‘Having worked in multiple NHS organisations, I’ve never come across this before. To spend such enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money, in my opinion, is an obscene waste of public money.’
Peter Passingham, of public sector union Unison, added: ‘That money could be going to pay for clinical staff on the ground. You might be talking about maybe ten mental health nurses.
‘If the trust wants to improve its image, it should spend money on improving its services.’
NSFT deputy chief executive Cath Byford said: ‘Hood & Woolf provided specialist capability and capacity that the trust lacked at a time of great need for this service.
‘They provided us with communications and engagement services and committed a whole team, giving us rapid and sustained access to a range of skills and support.
A source familiar with the trust told the BBC the amount paid to the PR firm was ‘shocking’
‘Our agreement with Hood & Woolf has now concluded and they are not currently working with us.’
Hood & Woolf director Steph Hood said the company worked with ‘some of the most complex and challenged organisations in the country’.
She added: ‘None of the work we have done is in opposition to providing good care to patients, it is essential in supporting NHS colleagues to focus on running the services that people need.’
The CQC said it used ‘a number of different evidence sources’ to reach its conclusions about the trust and was confident its ‘assessments were accurate and evidence-based’.
Other NHS services to have commissioned Hood & Woolf include the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, which paid them almost £580,000 in 2022-23.
The hospital was also rated ‘inadequate’ by the CQC at the start of the relationship but was upgraded and removed from special measures following another inspection.
It was also added to the government’s New Hospital Programme, following a campaign by hospital bosses.
QEH chief executive Alice Webster said the firm was hired to help mainly with the new hospital campaign and the contract ended in January.
She added: ‘This activity could not be fulfilled by the limited trust communications and engagement team at the time due to senior vacancies and sickness.’
Steph Hood, director of Hood & Woolf, said: ‘Since 2021 in Norfolk, we helped to secure more than £860 million of national investment for a new hospital in King’s Lynn, to address poor culture so that NHS staff feel more confident to raise concerns, and to support leadership teams to talk publicly and openly about challenging issues, including patient safety.’