One of the country’s most senior judges will lead the inquiry into serial killer nurse Lucy Letby’s crimes, the Health Secretary has said.
Steve Barclay told MPs Lady Justice Thirlwall has “many years of experience” as a senior judge and senior barrister.
The inquiry will have legal powers to compel witnesses, including former and current staff of the Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, where Letby worked and killed, to provide evidence.
Letby, 33, was last month sentenced to a whole-life term for murdering seven babies and trying to murder six more.
Making a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Barclay said: “This inquiry will examine the case’s wider circumstances, including the (hospital) trust’s response to clinicians who raised the alarm and the conduct of the wider NHS and its regulators.
“I can confirm to the House that Lady Justice Thirlwall will lead this inquiry.
“She is one of the country’s most senior judges, currently sitting in the Court of Appeal and with many years of experience as a senior judge and a senior barrister before that.”
He added: “I have raised with Lady Justice Thirlwall that the families should work with her to shape the terms of reference.
“We hope to finalise these in the next couple of weeks so the inquiry can start the consultation as soon as possible.
“I have also discussed with Lady Justice Thirlwall the families’ desire for the inquiry to take place in phases so it provides answers to vital questions as soon as possible.”
Mr Barclay later told MPs: “The crimes of Lucy Letby were some of the very worst the United Kingdom has witnessed.
“I know that nothing can come close to righting the wrongs of the past, but I hope Lady Justice Thirlwall’s inquiry will go at least some way to giving the victims’ families the answers they deserve.”
Mr Barclay said another look will be given to calls to disbar senior managers for serious misconduct.
He said such a recommendation in the 2019 Kark review had been previously looked at by the NHS but it was decided introducing wider changes called for by the same review “mitigated the need to accept this specific recommendation on disbarring”.
Mr Barclay told MPs: “In light of the evidence from Chester and ongoing variation in performance across trusts, I have asked NHS England to work with my department to revisit this.
“They will do so alongside the actions recommended by General Sir Gordon Messenger’s review of leadership, on which the Government has already accepted all seven recommendations from the report dated June last year.
“This will ensure the right standards, support and training are in place for the public to have confidence that NHS boards have the skills and experience needed to provide safe, quality care.”
The hospital saw a significant rise in the number of babies suffering serious and unexpected collapses in 2015 and 2016.
Letby’s presence when collapses took place was first mentioned to senior management by the unit’s head consultant in late June 2015.
Concerns among some consultants about Letby increased and were voiced to hospital bosses when more unexplained and unusual collapses followed, her trial at Manchester Crown Court heard.
But Letby was not removed from the unit until after the deaths of two triplet boys and the collapse of another baby boy on three successive days in June 2016.
She was confined to clerical work but registered a grievance procedure, which was resolved in her favour, and was due to return to the unit in March 2017.
The move did not take place as soon after police were contacted by the hospital trust.
Tamlin Bolton, a solicitor for law firm Switalskis, which is representing the families of seven of Letby’s victims, said in a statement: “Given what is in the public domain so far around the circumstances of Letby’s crimes, it is imperative that the families affected are heard if they are to have the highest confidence in the process.
“That’s why we are delighted that the families will be working with Lady Justice Thirlwall to help shape the terms of reference of the inquiry, which will specifically consider the trust’s response to the clinicians who raised the alarm about Letby.
“We hope that the trust demonstrates honesty and co-operation during the process and, ultimately, takes accountability for what has happened.”