Hospice sacked frontline health care workers over lockdown breach – but could face legal claims
Three frontline health care workers were sacked by St Leonard’s Hospice after breaking lockdown rules by gathering in a York pub garden.
The nurse and two health care assistants were dismissed for gross misconduct after they posed for pictures in the beer garden of the Sun Inn in Acomb earlier this year.
Another 16 hospice staff, also at the pub, were disciplined. Four senior nurses were told they faced dismissal unless they agreed to be demoted from Band Six to Band Five, with the consequent drop in salary. They decided to accept the demotion.
The rest were issued with final written warnings, which means they will not qualify for the increment to their salary this year.
Management at the hospice said they had acted because the staff’s actions had put their patients at risk.
But the affected staff say they had admitted their mistake and the penalties were excessive, especially considering the breach happened after they had put themselves at risk for more than a year by working long hours on the frontline of hospice health care during the pandemic.
York Central MP Rachael Maskell has met with the workers affected and is concerned by the hospice management’s actions. She is meeting with the chair of the board of trustees on Friday, 24 September.
YorkMix understands that the dismissed workers are taking legal advice over pursuing a claim for unfair dismissal.
On Sunday 16 May, 21 people, including 19 hospice workers, went to the beer garden of Sun Inn for a colleague’s leaving do.
They had booked several tables of no more than six, to stay within the Covid guidelines at the time.
But later in the evening they were photographed in a larger group, apparently breaking social distancing rules then in force.
None of the group was reported to the police or given a fixed penalty notice for breaching Covid rules.
All of those involved tested negative for coronavirus after the gathering.
One of York’s best-loved institutions, St Leonard’s Hospice provides care and support for terminally ill people, and people with life limiting illnesses.
It opened in 1984 and has cared for more than 13,000 people since then.
The hospice needs to raise £5.8 million each year to provide its services.
It gets just a quarter of its funding from the local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). The rest is from public donations, its shops, and legacies from wills.
However, 21 of these photos were then shared on Facebook. These images have since been deleted, but the hospice says they show “very clear photographic evidence that demonstrates these individuals were not socially distanced”.
Another member of staff saw the pictures and reported them to hospice management. It launched a disciplinary investigation, interviewing each of those who attended at least once.
A St Leonard’s Hospice spokesperson said: “Following an extensive internal investigation we took appropriate disciplinary action. The allegations amounted to gross misconduct hence why dismissal was appropriate for three members of staff.
“Central to our swift actions has always been protecting the vulnerable patients we care for. We have an obligation to our patients, families and staff to keep everybody safe, especially during this pandemic, which continues to be challenging.”
Impact on care
Several of the nurses involved have been signed off from work by their GPs with stress brought on by the disciplinary procedures.
That, and the sacking of three workers, has added to a shortage of health care staff at the hospice.
This means they are operating only five beds – out of the capacity of 16 available under ongoing pandemic restrictions (it is 20 under normal circumstances).
The hospice says the staff shortages are not solely down to the disciplinary action, but “due to a mix of sickness, maternity leave and ongoing vacancies” which are “consistent with other healthcare organisations”.
To maintain safe staffing levels “we took the difficult yet proactive decision to reduce the number of admissions to our in-patient unit,” a hospice spokesperson said.
They are also caring for more people in their home via the [email protected] team.
Impact on staff
Some hospice staff who were not involved in the beer garden incident are concerned about the severity of the penalties, and the impact on the mental health of those disciplined, as well as workplace morale more generally.
YorkMix understands they have raised their concerns with the board of trustees. They feel the staff involved have been harshly treated, particularly given the fact that they had served the hospice loyally for years, and had worked for many months on the frontline of the pandemic, wearing PPE for 13 hours shifts for months on end, and working on rest days to cover for colleagues sick or self isolating.
Hospice management told YorkMix that an independent review of the disciplinary process concluded that they followed the correct protocols.
We asked the hospice management: “Are you aware of wider staff concerns about the management and the treatment of staff at the hospice?”
They told us: “No we’re not. Not at all.”
Trustees chair David Dickson said: “Staff welfare is crucial to a hospice like this.
“We take on board what people say, we meet up regularly. We have regular reviews, we bring people in from outside to support staff.
“And we’ve always done that, we’re always willing to do so, because that’s the type of operation we are.”
Another social media post
On 3 May, when lockdown restrictions were in force, the hospice chief executive Emma Johnson publicly tweeted a picture of the inside of a log cabin, saying: “A gorgeous afternoon with friends in a log cabin with fizz.”
The disciplined hospice workers believed that amounted to an equivalent breach of the Covid guidelines.
The hospice spokesperson said that the chair and vice chair of the board of trustees had investigated and “confirmed that the chief executive had not breached social distancing regulations”.
David Dickson, chair of trustees at St Leonard’s Hospice, said: “As an organisation we pride ourselves in putting patient safety at the forefront of our care.
“We were made aware of a group of staff who, outside of work, were in serious breach of the lockdown and social distancing regulations in place at the time.
“We immediately commenced a full internal investigation, making the relevant regulators aware. Following this extensive investigation, we took appropriate action.
“Central to our decision was the ongoing safety and wellbeing of our patients and their families.”
I was a staff nurse at St.Leonard’s Hospice for 22yrs, before retiring in February 2020. I am writing to say how shocked and saddened I am on finding out how badly my former colleagues have been treated following their misdemeanour in May 2021. I know they have apologised and we’re sorry for breaking both COVID and the hospice social media rules. I am aware that due to disciplinary action taken in dismissing 3 inpatient nursing staff, and the downgrading of 4 of the senior nurses and many other receiving written warnings, the hospice has only been able to run 5 of the 20 beds. In fact only a couple of weeks ago there were only 2 inpatients. This situation created by the chief executive is absolutely outrageous when there is so much pressure on beds at York Hospital. All my years of working at St. Leonard’s I felt so proud and privileged to be part of an amazing, caring team so last year as Lady Captain of York Golf Club my chosen charity was St. Leonard’s. I worked really hard and managed to raise £15,200 through the generosity of our members. If I had known the way the senior management team and the trustees have dealt with these staff I would have raised money for York Against Cancer instead of the hospice. I like many others will no longer be supporting St. Leonard’s Hospice until this horrendous situation is resolved. I hope that getting York Central MP Rachael Maskell involved will help resolve this appalling situation. The CEO Emma Johnson needs to be held accountable.