Health chiefs criticised over trip to Australia

Senior members of Scotland’s largest health board spent five nights in Australia on a trip financed by the contractor building South Glasgow University Hospital, prompting questions about a breach of the code of conduct for public servants.

The 18,000-mile round trip to Perth in April was said by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to have proved “very useful” in ironing out issues such as IT strategy at its £842 million hospital, which opens in January.

The trip was paid for by Brookfield Multiplex and supported by the Greater Glasgow and Clyde board chairman and Scottish government officials. The board said that it enabled four senior figures, including Robert Calderwood, the chief executive, to discuss “handover arrangements and technical details” with counterparts at another new hospital.

Critics claimed that the trip represented a conflict of interest and suggested that the officials could have breached the board’s guidelines on gifts and hospitality.

The guidelines state: “Modest hospitality may be acceptable provided it is normal and reasonable in the circumstances, eg lunches in the course of a working visit. Any hospitality accepted should be similar in scale to that which the NHS as an employer would be likely to offer.” The board adds in bold type: “All other offers of hospitality should be declined.”

Robert Barrington, executive director of Transparency International UK, an anti-corruption organisation, said that the board had questions to answer. “There is no such thing as a free lunch, let alone a free trip to Australia,” he said. “Taxpayers will be paying for it through the contract price and it is essential that the proper policies and procedures were followed.”

The Greater Glasgow and Clyde board would not confirm the price of the trip, nor details of flights or hotels. It said that “the trip was paid for by Brookfield Multiplex”, an international contractor that built the new Wembley Stadium.

The four board executives arrived in Australia at 8pm on Saturday April 12, and flew back from Perth at 11am the next Thursday. Mr Calderwood was accompanied by David Loudon, project manager of the South Glasgow hospital­, and from NHSGCC’s acute division­, Grant Archibald, chief operating officer, and David Stewart, associate medical director.

The board said the trip was organised in conjunction with the government of Western Australia and had a full itinerary enabling Mr Calderwood and his team “to discuss a number of subjects from the commissioning process, clinical­ strategies, patient pathways, discharge planning and IT strategy”.

The hospital in Perth had undergone “a highly complex migration process” similar to the experience in Glasgow.

The “full itinerary” revealed that Sunday had been a free day, while the executives’ business activities­ on Tuesday and Wednesday were due to end at 3.30pm and 4pm­. Monday had a full schedule of business meetings, though lunch and an evening meal were provided. NHSGCC said: “Any meals not supplied­ by the itinerary were paid for personally by the chief executive and he does not claim subsistence costs.”

Until this week, Mr Calderwood’s declarations of receipts showed he claimed no expenses between April 8 and 22, while his register of hospitality has no entries between February and October, when he attended a black tie dinner at Glasgow University. Yesterday, the board acknowledged that this record would be amended.

Details of the trip emerged within days of two reports into NHSGCC hospitals. Last month Lord MacLean’s inquiry into Vale of Leven hospital, where at least 34 people died after an outbreak Clostridium difficile, said NHSGGC had “badly let down” patients. A healthcare environment inspectorate report last week found deficiencies­ in the infection control regime­ at Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

Patrick McGuire, the lawyer representing families of patients who died in the outbreak, linked the board’s failings at Vale of Leven with the Australia trip.

He said: “In his report into the disgraceful events at Vale of Leven, Lord Mac­Lean made clear his concerns about the management decisions taken by NHSGCC. In light of his comments and other reports into the standard of care and cleanliness provided by the board, this trip to Western Australia will raise eyebrows. In an age of video conferencing, patients will be asking if this trip was necessary and whether senior management at the board used their time in the most efficient manner .”

The board said last night: “This was a business trip approved by the chairman and other senior non-executive board members. Scottish government officials also agreed this was a worthwhile trip given the complexity and scale of the similarities between the Australian hospital complex and the new South Glasgow hospitals campus.

“Our chief executive and the others had one working dinner courtesy of Brookfield (Australia) [after] a full day of business at the Perth hospital. The chief executive did not declare this evening meal as ‘hospitality’ but has, following discussion with our head of board administration, agreed that he will now do so in the interests of openness and transparency. It is estimated the meal and refreshments would cost less than £80 per person.”