They are the words of warmth that became the kiss of death: “Please make comfortable.” As a GP at a hospital in Hampshire, Jane Barton would scribble the phrase on medical notes after prescribing painkillers for elderly patients in her care.
Those on the receiving end were supposed to be in extreme discomfort and on the brink of death: little else could justify high doses of powerful opiates. It would transpire that many patients were anything but.
Take Arthur Cunningham, 79, who died in Gosport War Memorial Hospital in 1998. His stepson insists he had minor health problems. “He went in to be treated for bedsores,” he said. “There’s no way he was near death.” Yet the former wartime pilot was given enough diamorphine, the medical name for heroin, to kill him.
Or Leonard Graham, 74, a retired engineer who went into hospital to recover from a bout of pneumonia. His widow’s testimony could not be clearer: “Len said he wasn’t in pain.”
Graham, too, was inexplicably loaded with diamorphine, in his case by a nurse described as Barton’s “right-hand man”. With opiates coursing through his blood, he died.
This week a £13m government panel will report on at least 833 deaths that took place on Barton’s watch and deal with the “unanswered questions” from investigations over two decades involving many other deaths. Why were patients injected with toxic drugs despite insisting they were not in pain? Why did people who were meant to be convalescing after hip replacement or treatment for fractured shoulders end up leaving in coffins? And why were their families’ pleas for criminal prosecution rejected?
James Jones, the former bishop of Liverpool who led the 2012 Hillsborough inquiry, is leading the panel, and as with the football disaster there are dozens of families who believe their loved ones’ deaths are part of a cover-up. It is not hard to understand their outrage, or their belief that Barton, 69, has been protected by the Establishment: she was able to retire on a healthy NHS pension and lives in a detached Georgian house in Alverstoke, the smartest Gosport suburb, with a glistening conservatory, a garden shed the size of a small house and three cars on the gravel drive.
She also has influential friends. After qualifying as a doctor in 1972, Barton arrived in Gosport with her husband, Tim, a former Royal Navy commodore. The couple became pillars of the community: by the 1980s the Gosport Road Runners club awarded a Jane Barton Plate for the “most improved female runner”, and she was a noted member of the Royal Navy birdwatching society.
The couple moved in the same circles as the area’s Tory MP, Sir Peter Viggers, who was forced to stand down in 2009 after claiming £30,000 of public money for maintaining the garden at his country house, including £1,600 for an ornamental duck house.
Concerns about Barton date from 1991, when two nurses said they believed patients were being given large diamorphine doses instead of the sedative diazepam. Internal documents from that time, seen by The Sunday Times, reported that deaths were being “hastened unnecessarily”. The investigation petered out, as did a 1998 police investigation of unlawful killing, because of a supposed lack of evidence.
What happened next is extraordinary. In 2001 Barton was referred to the General Medical Council (GMC) for a fitness-to-practice hearing over 11 deaths. In 2009 the GMC completed its investigation and found Barton guilty of “serious professional misconduct” after hearing evidence of her “brusque, unfriendly and indifferent” manner, “intransigence and worrying lack of insight” and “failure to recognise the limits of her professional competence”. But she was not struck off.
Who was on the GMC’s council during the period Barton’s case was considered? Her brother. Christopher Bulstrode is an emeritus professor of orthopaedics at Oxford. Last week the GMC confirmed he was an elected member of its council from July 2003 to December 2008, but insisted he was not directly involved: “At the time Dr Barton’s hearing began in June 2009, Professor Bulstrode was no longer on the GMC’s council. He had left the council in December 2008, before any decisions about the case were taken.”
During this period Viggers was — in the words of Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat former health minister — “constantly dismissive of relatives’ complaints” and “behaving as if it was outrageous to challenge a doctor in that way”. Families say complaints to the MP “fell on deaf ears”.
“What went on at Gosport was wicked,” said Stephen Lloyd, Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne, who has been helping Gillian Mackenzie, 84, the daughter of Gladys Richards, who died aged 91 in 1998. It took 15 years before an inquest concluded that opiates administered by Barton had contributed to her death.
“I am hoping that after this report Barton is in the cross-hairs along with Hampshire police, the NHS and the GMC,” Lloyd claimed. “There has been the most enormous cover-up.”
Charles Farthing, the stepson of Arthur Cunningham, said: “We feel they were all in it together and the whole system has blocked any proper inquiry and investigation for 20 years. Not knowing the truth has ruined people’s lives.”
They hope the long wait to learn the truth about “Dr Opiate” will end on Wednesday.