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'Appalling' maternity unit cover-up after baby deaths

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A newborn baby is seen in an incubator at a maternity ward in Kabul on October 17, 2011. Health officials could face disciplinary action over "appalling" findings that a regulator tried to suppress a report into its own failings over the deaths of babies and mothers at a maternity unit, the government said Wednesday. (AFP/File)

Health officials could face disciplinary action over "appalling" findings that a regulator tried to suppress a report into its own failings over the deaths of babies and mothers at a maternity unit, the government said Wednesday.

A damning new review of the episode by management consultants Grant Thornton found that the Care Quality Commission may have deliberately deleted its own review of its actions over the unit at Furness General Hospital in Cumbria.

The commission also missed a series of opportunities stretching over two years to raise the alarm and trigger much-needed improvements at the unit, where preventable deaths took place, the review found.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that those involved in suppressing the internal review could face disciplinary action. The individuals were not named in Grant Thornton's report.

Hunt added he was determined that "the whole truth must now come out and individuals must be held to account".

The CQC said that it did not publish the name of a senior manager who ordered the review to be deleted for fear of breaching the Data Protection Act.

But data watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office said there was "no blanket ban preventing senior managers being held to account".

David Cameron's spokesman said the review's findings were "deeply disturbing and appalling" but maintained the government had already taken "very clear, strong action" to reform the commission, including a new leadership and structure.

Concerns were expressed about the maternity unit as early as 2008, but the CQC certified it safety compliant in 2010.

In 2011 one of the CQC's own officials was asked to review the commission's decisions, but in March 2012 he was told to delete his report because it was "potentially damaging to the CQC's reputation", the Grant Thornton review found.

The manager involved denied ordering the report to be suppressed -- but the authors of the latest review found "corroborative evidence" that the order was made.

The CQC admitted its conduct had been "poor".

"The report shows how CQC provided false assurances to the public and to Monitor (which assesses healthcare trusts) in 2010. We were slow to identify failings at the trust and then slow to take action," a spokesman said.

"We let people down, and we apologise for that."

The father of a baby who died aged nine days at the hospital in 2008 said the latest review was "shocking".

James Titcombe's son Joshua died when staff failed to identify or treat an infection.

"It embodies everything that is wrong with the culture in the NHS. It's something that's been rotten really about the system," he told Sky News.

"We need it to change. We need that culture to change."

More than 30 families have launched legal action against the hospital over deaths and injuries, the BBC reported.

The scandal follows revelations of neglect at Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, where 200 to 300 people may have died unnecessarily.