A PRIVATE hospital in County Durham has closed as a result of an undercover investigation which revealed evidence of abusive treatment of vulnerable patients by staff.

All the patients at Whorlton Hall, in Whorlton, near Barnard Castle, have now moved out of the facility as a result of the investigation, which uncovered incidents of care staff claiming to have deliberately harmed patients, making threats and using offensive language towards them.

The Northern Echo: A boarded up Whorlton Hall today. Picture: Sarah CaldecottA boarded up Whorlton Hall today. Picture: Sarah Caldecott

Cygnet, which owns Whorlton Hall, said 16 members of staff had been suspended and said it had called police after being made aware of Panorama's allegations.

A police investigation is ongoing into the alleged abuse at Whorlton Hall, which promises therapeutic care for adults with learning difficulties or autism.

The Northern Echo:

The BBC’s Panorama broadcasted its investigation into the alleged abuse on Wednesday night, which included footage of staff using offensive language towards patients, taunting them, making threats and physically restraining them.

Reporter Olivia Davies worked undercover as a care worker at Whorlton Hall to investigate claims by whistleblowers of the mistreatment and poor care of patients.

During shifts over two months she filmed staff mocking, taunting, intimidating and repeatedly restraining patients.

MP Helen Goodman called for a detailed investigation and said it was a "grave matter" that problems had not been uncovered by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

The industry watchdog, which had rated the hospital good following an inspection in 2017, has apologised to the patients and families concerned.

After seeing the footage, two of England’s most respected experts on learning disabilities, autism and challenging behaviour, described the culture at Whorlton Hall as “deviant”.

The Northern Echo:

Professor of Clinical Psychology and Disability Glynis Murphy told Panorama: “I think it is like psychological torture, because she is stuck there, she can’t get away. It is a secure unit. And they are deliberately taunting her and deliberately upsetting her.”

The programme’s reporter also witnessed a number of incidents of physical restraint, which should only be used to prevent a patient harming themselves or others.

Birmingham City University Visiting Professor of Autism Studies, Andrew McDonnell who develops training aimed at limiting the use of restraint or avoiding it altogether, said: “Restraint should be momentary. It should be short. It should be with as few staff as possible, without an audience. If there is no immediate risk of harm you back off. You’re talking a threshold of minute of two. Then let go.”

A spokesperson for Cygnet said: “We are shocked and deeply saddened by the allegations made against members of staff at Whorlton Hall, part of the Danshell Group, which Cygnet recently acquired.

“We take these allegations extremely seriously. We have suspended all the members of staff involved, simultaneously informed all relevant authorities, including the police, who have now instigated an inquiry and we are cooperating fully with their investigation.

“We have taken the initiative of transferring all the patients to other hospitals. The safety and care of our patients and residents is of paramount importance and we have zero tolerance of unprofessional conduct towards them.

The Northern Echo:

“Those implicated in this programme have betrayed not only some of society’s most vulnerable people but also the thousands of people at Cygnet who work daily with dedication and compassion to look after the people in their care.

“This appalling behaviour is entirely inconsistent with Cygnet Health Care’s values and high standards and we remain absolutely committed to delivering the highest quality healthcare, which our patients and residents expect and deserve.”

Figures obtained by Panorama under the Freedom of Information Act show that in the two years to 2018 the number of physical restraints in specialist hospitals like Whorlton Hall almost doubled to more than 21,000.

After the BBC Panorama programme exposed abuse at Winterbourne View hospital in 2011, the then Prime Minister David Cameron promised the mistreatment of patients would never happen again.

Winterbourne View was shut down, and the Government committed to closing other specialist hospitals too, saying care should be provided closer to patients’ homes instead. But most still remain open, although bed numbers have been reduced from 3,400 to 2,300.

Winterbourne View and Whorlton Hall used to be owned by the same company, Castlebeck. Following the Winterbourne View scandal, another company called Danshell bought what was left of Castlebeck, including Whorlton Hall. Danshell was bought last year by Cygnet - one of the country’s biggest learning disabilities and mental health care providers.

Dr Paul Lelliott, Deputy Chief Inspector of Hospitals at the CQC told Panorama: “On this occasion it is quite clear that we did not pick up the abuse that was happening at Whorlton Hall. All I can do is apologise deeply to the people concerned.”

The CQC said that since its 2017 inspection of Whorlton Hall which resulted in a rating of good, it had warned the hospital about staff training, long hours and excessive use of agency staff but under the rules at the time it couldn’t change the rating.

According to figures supplied by Cygnet, the CQC made seven visits to Whorlton Hall in 2018/19 and the hospital had 11 separate safeguarding visits, which the company said has resulted in all issues raised being resolved.

The company said there were also some 144 visitors from the NHS and Clinical Commissioning Groups as well as 75 from local authority and 60 independent advocacy monitoring visits.

A Cygnet spokesman added: "In total, from January 2018 to the beginning of May 2019, there were 336 visitors from external agencies to monitor only 12 patients, an average of 21 visits per month, and no concerns as currently alleged were raised by any of these agencies."

Mrs Goodman, whose Bishop Auckland constituency includes Whorlton, said: "I have not been told anything about the precise nature of these allegations. All I know is that an investigation is underway.

"People with learning disabilities are often extremely vulnerable and must be protected. We need a detailed investigation into this.

"It is a grave matter that problems were not uncovered earlier by the CQC.”

The Department for Health and Social Care told BBC Panorama: “We treat any allegations of abuse with the utmost seriousness. Durham Constabulary are now leading a criminal investigation into the allegations and we cannot comment on the investigation while it is ongoing. Steps have been taken to ensure the safety of residents at Whorlton Hall.

“Autistic people and those with learning disabilities should receive the best possible care and be supported to live in their communities. We are working to ensure more people return home from hospital as soon as their treatment has finished and significant investment in community support has already led to a 22% reduction in these mental health inpatient numbers since 2015.”

A Durham Police spokesman said an investigation was still ongoing. No arrests have been made.

He said: "Durham Constabulary can confirm that they have launched a criminal investigation regarding concerns raised about alleged physical and psychological abuse by staff at Whorlton Hall, near Barnard Castle.

"The police are working closely with partner agencies."