As we navigate the way through these challenging times, I want to outline how PHSO has responded to the coronavirus crisis. Our priorities at this time are the safety and wellbeing of all our colleagues while continuing to deliver an accessible ombudsman service.
I am proud of the resilience and comradery colleagues across the organisation have shown in continuing service delivery despite significant changes to the logistics of operations. I thank everyone warmly for hard and dedicated work performed with great spirit and professionalism.
How we have responded
We have been closely following Government guidance and like other organisations, took the decision to close our offices several weeks ago. Thanks to everyone’s flexibility and dedication, we were able to move most PHSO staff from office to home-working and have the helpline up and running within a few days.
After discussions with the executive team, NHS colleagues, and Parliamentary stakeholders we decided to pause work on NHS complaints from Thursday 26 March. This included accepting new complaints and progressing existing cases that involve using NHS resources at this time of crisis.
After speaking with NHS complaint handling teams, it was clear they were not in a position to provide PHSO with the information we require to carry out investigations, so caseworkers have informed complainants whose cases will be paused and explained the reasoning.
I have, of course, given full support to our external Clinical Advisers who have decided to dedicate themselves full-time to frontline NHS services, providing their expertise where it is needed most.
Why we have made these decisions
Many NHS complaints teams are working at a significantly reduced capacity as complaint handlers move into different teams to support frontline services. We do not want to place additional pressure on the NHS at this critical time when its staff should be supported to focus on the enormous task at hand.
In the days following our decision to suspend NHS investigations, NHS England announced they would also pause investigation of new and existing complaints.
We continue to work with complaint handling teams and have provided additional guidance for them on our website.
Continuing to deliver our service
It is vital that PHSO continues to provide an accessible and responsive public service through extraordinary times. The helpline is open as routine to provide advice to anyone who has a concern or complaint and signpost vulnerable people to additional support.
Although we are not currently accepting new complaints about the NHS, information about how to do this once our service returns to normalon our website.
At present, we are continuing to receive and progress complaints about UK Government departments and agencies. But we understand many of these organisations are also experiencing high levels of demand and staff are being redeployed across Government organisations. The PHSO liaison team is in contact with Government department complaint handlers and we will continuously review this situation.
Work on policy projects that support PHSO casework is ongoing, with a focus on the systemic improvement of complaint handling and sharing learning from casework to generate better service delivery. However, some of this work will be reprioritised. For example, while the work to develop a Complaint Standards Framework continues, we have postponed temporarily the public consultation on the initiative.
Creating and maintaining an equal, diverse and inclusive Ombudsman service is vital for PHSO staff, for people who bring their complaints to us and for organisations we investigate. In this context, last week we published our new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2020-2024 which sets out our vision to achieve this.
Holding NHS organisations to account
It is essential that NHS patients and staff still feel empowered to speak up and that action is taken when necessary. The NHS have committed to continue reviewing and acknowledging new complaints and to act on any concerns about patient safety or safeguarding. The National Guardian’s Office has a network of over 500 Freedom to Speak Up Guardians who continue to support NHS staff to raise concerns.
Our role is to hold NHS organisations to account. As soon as the current crisis abates, we will continue to investigate complaints, including those related to issues during this period of lockdown.
Planning for the future
PHSO will continue to monitor the national situation closely and resume work on health investigations as soon as possible. Meanwhile, we are looking at how we can improve our processes and systems to work more efficiently and provide an even better service in future.
Please stay safe and look after one another.