An horrific attack on a nurse a Blackpool’s flagship mental health facility has sparked fresh fears of a staffing “crisis” at the unit.
The medic was off work for two days after being targeted by a patient at The Harbour with a boiling water and sugar mixture – known behind bars as “napalm” because the mixture sticks to the skin and intensifies burns, like the bombs used in Vietnam.
A whistleblower said a lack of staff was putting people in danger, although bosses at the facility said there had been a “significant reduction in violence compared to last year”.
Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust, which runs The Harbour, insisted staffing levels were “safe” despite failing to meet safer staffing levels on 13 per cent of days since the start of February.
It also said requests for extra staff on a ward were “never refused”.
But one worker said: “The unit is in crisis. This nurse will be lucky if she doesn’t have permanent scarring and it’s down to leadership and money.
“If a ward is set safer staffing levels, which is a national guideline, how are the staff able to cope with one or even two staff members short?
“This is how assaults are happening, patients being allowed to bring drugs and alcohol onto the wards, and the overall chaos that senior management dismisses.”
Neither the ambulance service nor the police were able to provide details of the assault at The Harbour.
In a statement, Lancashire Care said: “Whilst the physical injury was not serious or long lasting this is an example of an incident that the Trust takes very seriously because it would have been very distressing for the individual.”
It added that the patient responsible had been “very unwell” at the time and their behaviour was being managed.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the whistleblower said there have been “serious assaults on staff” in the past four weeks, including “one in which a mental health nurse had boiling water mixed in with sugar thrown into her face, which resulted in her receiving second degree burns”.
Bosses told The Gazette there had been one serious incident at The Harbour since the start of the year.
A spokesman added: “We can confirm that support was provided to the nurse by her immediate line manager and her colleagues.
“The employee did not suffer third degree burns and was able to return to work after two days.”
Last year, in response to a Freedom of Information request, Lancashire Care said there had been year-on-year increases in the number of patient-on-staff attacks across its county units, from 145 in 2012/13 to 596 in 2016/17.
There had also been a sharp rise in patient-on-patient incidents, from 42 to 224 over the same period.
But the trust said there had been a “significant reduction” in violence at The Harbour – where three-quarters of patients have been sectioned rather than admitted voluntarily – since last year.
A spokesman added: “We are a much better place than we have been previously but remain realistic that this is a facility that is caring for people that are very unwell and present with challenging behaviours.
“Assaults on employees are taken very seriously and we are taking a more robust stance in relation to this.
The safety of our staff and service users is our priority and we are working hard to reduce violence and instances of people bringing illicit substances into the unit, with increasing support from the police when necessary.”
Body cameras are also being trialled in some of Lancashire Care’s units, though the trust did not say which.
Problems at the unit
July 2015: Sally Hickling, 20, died after being found with a ligature around her neck. The following year, the trust apologised for its “shortcomings” after an inquest heard staff were not checking up on her frequently enough.
September 2015: Tracey Lynch, 39, who was sectioned after causing a serious crash on the M55, was released without being assessed and went on to kill herself. Senior coroner Michael Singleton, now retired, wrote to trust bosses to demand action to prevent a repeat, warning there has been “a serious systems failure”.
October 2015: A staff shortage led to the closure of The Harbour’s intensive care Byron ward until more staff could be brought in.
November 2015: The Care Quality Commission (CQC), the health industry regulator, said half of Lancashire Care’s services ‘require improvement’, with 14 specific concerns raised including over long waits for appointments, staffing levels and case loads.
November 2017: Bosses insisted staffing levels were “a priority” after a worker told The Gazette medics were being asked to staff an assessment ward at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, leaving The Havour “short-staffed”.
December 2017: Firefighters were called after a patient started a fire in their room.
May 2018: The CQC again said Lancashire Care ‘requires improvement’. Nine breaches of legal requirements were identified at an inspection, which found the trust was not safe, effective or well led.
August 2018: Coroner Alan Wilson warned more people would die if “struggling” mental health services did not get help to cope with the huge level of demand they are facing. He raised the issue with a government minister after the inquest into the death of Sara Moran, 46, who died at home in central Blackpool after taking an overdose.
October 2018: Resort councillors said a lack of staff, beds, and cash had left mental health services in Lancashire “in chaos”. Members of the health scrutiny committee grilled Lancashire Care’s clinical director Dr Leon Le Roux, who said the service was “under-resourced”.
October 2018: Senior figures at Lancashire Care were sent an anonymous letter voicing “concerns” about staffing. Director of nursing and quality Paul Lumsdon visited The Harbour to hold talks with workers.
November 2018: A violent patient escaped and was caught near a Haven holiday park. A whistleblower said the man kicked his way out of a room that should have been triple-locked. Meanwhile, the county’s most senior police officer, Chied Con Andy Rhodes, described a mental health “crisis”, with his force “picking up the pieces of a system that is falling apart”.
How to solve the issue
Staffing has been an issue at The Harbour since it opened in 2015.
Within months, a key ward was temporarily shut due to shortages and more recently bosses have been grilled by Blackpool councillors over ongoing concerns about the facility.
Earlier this year, Blackpool Council’s director of adult social services Karen Smith told a meeting of the health scrutiny committee: “Daily, I receive reports from our staff, from services users and from families with concerns about the level of chaos and the number of incidents.
“People are bringing substances onto the wards which are not allowed, and there are assaults.”
The trust has previously admitted drugs are contributing to the problems on the wards and a spokesman today said: “We are working hard to reduce violence and instances of people bringing illicit substances into the unit with increasing support from the police when necessary.”
And while Lancashire Care admitted safer staffing levels were only met on 91 per cent of days in January and 87 per cent since February 1, it said it was “overspending on bank staff” to boost numbers “as and when needed”.
A spokesman added: “The Trust has very recently undertaken work with the national safer staffing lead, Keith Hurst. This has confirmed that staffing levels are safe.
“If a ward asks for extra staff this is never refused and especially not on the grounds of money.”
Since Prof Hurst’s review, the trust’s board has agreed to “invest £3m on staffing to recruit substantively” and the trust is “actively recruiting for nurses”, though it acknowledged a national shortage.
Gordon Marsden, Blackpool South’s Labour MP, said: “These figures confirm that there have been a number of occasions in the recent past where, as the trust has admitted, they have been under-staffed.
“That, in an institution where they are having to deal with some complex and difficult patients, must be of a concern.
“We need to see more evidence and an independent assessment of whether these levels of staffing are safe for the patients or not.”