HEALTH Secretary Jeane Freeman is under pressure to order an independent probe into allegations of bullying in Argyll and Bute.

Brendan O'Hara, the SNP MP for the region, said staff in its health and social care partnership (HSCP) had "lost faith" in the systems supposed to protect them from harassment.

Mr O'Hara added that it was "preposterous" for senior leadership to claim that an online culture survey of NHS staff, carried out earlier this year, had fulfilled the Sturrock Report's recommendation for an independent review.

He said it meant senior managers - who QC John Sturrock described as part of the problem - had "in effect, taken on the responsibility of investigating themselves".

In a letter to Ms Freeman, dated November 9, Mr O'Hara said: "Far too many people who work in Argyll & Bute have lost faith in the systems that are meant to be in place to protect them from bullying and harassment in the workplace...

"Any claim therefore that a senior management led staff survey; one whose findings are then fed back to those same senior managers, is somehow an adequate response to Mr Sturrock’s recommendation is preposterous, and for NHS Highland, Argyll & Bute Council and the HSCP to claim it has fully complied with what was asked of them in the Sturrock Report, stretches credulity to the limit."

READ MORE: Former HR managers compares management culture in Argyll and Bute to 'nest of vipers'

Mr O'Hara added that he and other local politicians and trade union representatives "have seen too many careers stall or end prematurely" as a result of workplace bullying.

One nurse, based in one of Argyll's island communities, says she was forced to quit as a result of bullying by her team leader but has "watched in complete bewilderment" as this same manager went on to be promoted to a senior post.

The nurse said: "I witnessed the sharing of patients' notes inappropriately, wrongful social work referrals, and almost daily acts of bullying and unprofessionalism within this small community [including] shaming some of her patients on social media and substandard basic nursing care.

"Challenging this behaviour became impossible and I was effectively ousted and completely demoralised."

John Sturrock said a "specific review of management practices in Argyll and Bute is necessary" when he reported his findings on NHS Highland in May 2019.

His own report had focused on the north Highland region but Mr Sturrock described hearing from witnesses about intimidating behaviour by some senior managers in Argyll and Bute and people living in small communities facing “victimisation, harassment, humiliation and rumour-spreading”.

He added: "Because the nature of some of the allegations implicate management at a very senior level, consideration should be given to this being conducted by someone from outside the area who is viewed as wholly independent”.

The leadership of NHS Highland, Argyll and Bute council, and the HSCP insist that this requirement has already been met through the culture survey, whose findings were reported in May.

Of the 508 current and former NHS staff who responded to the survey, 344 said they had experienced bullying and harassment - with nearly half saying it had occurred in the six months prior to the research being carried out between February and April this year.

READ MORE: Why Argyll and Bute's bullying victims still feel silenced

In a second letter, dated November 4, five current and former social work staff, and representatives of the Social Workers Union, among others, also begged the Health Secretary to intervene.

As non-NHS employees within the HSCP, they were not included in the culture survey and said they had "exhausted all avenues at our disposal" to push for an independent review.

The letter raises the case of a senior social work manager suspended on full pay in May 2020 over bullying allegations.

An independent external investigation was launched with staff members providing witness statements in July and August, but "to date there has been no outcome".

One of the signatories, former social worker Melani Erlank - who says she "had experienced bullying at the hands of this manager for many years" - wrote in an email to Ms Freeman that she had twice been blocked from giving evidence against the manager by the HSCP chief officer, Joanna Macdonald.

She added: "I was only allowed to participate after Brendan O’Hara MP and Beth Kinnell, my union representative, became involved...If this is an indication of how Ms Macdonald deals with concerns raised about bullying, then I am very concerned about how she is handling the wider culture of bullying within the HSCP."

Sandy Wilkie, a former HR manager for the Argyll and Bute HSCP, who spoke out about his own experiences last week, said: "The enormity of this is just staggering. It really is a systematic failure of culture.

"Bullying is endemic within Argyll and Bute and it's going on to this day.

"It's not just damaging staff, it's putting patients at risk."

READ MORE: Bullying still happening months after 'grossly concerning' staff culture survey

Ms Macdonald said it would "not be appropriate" to comment on individual employees, but said: "We are committed to a zero tolerance approach to bullying and any issues raised will be thoroughly investigated through the appropriate HR processes."

Ms Macdonald added that the culture survey and a 100-day action plan put in place to address its findings were in line with the recommendations of the Sturrock Report.

The anonymous web-based questionaire was created and carried out by Glasgow-based consultants, Progressive Partnership, in consultation with staff and stakeholders, including the Whistleblowing Group. 

Ms Macdonald added: "It is therefore very disappointing that there are continued requests for a further review when the two reviews have already confirmed the issues that we need to address and we have already put in place a range of actions and interventions to deal with these.

"It is important that our focus and energy remains on rectifying the issues raised and improving the culture, rather than conducting further reviews which may delay us providing some closure for staff who are the most important people in this whole issue."

Pam Dudek, chief executive of NHS Highland, said its 'healing process' - set up following the Sturrock Report - would remain open for registrations until February 2021.

This allows former and current NHS staff within Highland and Argyll and Bute to share their experiences with an independent panel, access psychological therapy, receive a formal apology, and financial compensation.

Ms Dudek, said: “We have been supportive of those who have experienced bullying and harassment, and we reaffirm that we are deeply sorry for the harm that has been caused.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government, referencing the culture survey, said an independent review to explore workplace cultures in Argyll & Bute "has been carried out".

He added: "We are aware that NHS Highland and Argyll and Bute Council are exploring how they may work together to support staff from across both Health and Social Care who have experienced bullying.

"The Cabinet Secretary is taking a close interest in this and considering whether any further action is required”