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The Bristol heart babies Wednesday, 17 March, 1999, 15:35 GMT
Parents pack inquiry launch
10.19 16-03-99 cofins ac
Parents campaigned for the inquiry outside the GMC
The public inquiry into the heart surgery scandal at Bristol Royal Infirmary has started hearing evidence.

There were queues outside the inquiry offices on Tuesday morning as parents lined up for the 11am start.

At least 29 babies and toddlers died and four were left with brain damage after complex heart surgery at the BRI.

The death and injury rate was much higher than at other hospitals which perform the operations.

A disciplinary hearing at the General Medical Council led to two BRI doctors being banned and another being censured.

But while the GMC hearings were limited in scope, the public inquiry has a wide-ranging remit and is expected to run for 18 months.

Campaigners say there were in fact many more cases of brain damage than examined by the GMC, and the inquiry will investigate these claims.

The doctors' performance in adult surgery is also expected to come under scrutiny.

Evidence sources

As well as examining mountains of evidence, the inquiry will also be the first to accept evidence over the Internet and via a phoneline.

Professor Ian Kennedy will chair the inquiry.

He said: "There are opportunities for everyone to have their voices heard.

"We will be in Bristol until the end of 1999 and then we will look at the wider implications for the whole of the NHS in public seminars next year."

The second set of hearings will take place in London, and Professor Kennedy aims to report back to Health Secretary Frank Dobson by the middle of next year.

Massive task

The inquiry will consider the cases of 500 families, 2,000 individual operations and 600,000 documents.

The cost of the inquiry is expected to top 15m.

Professor Kennedy said: "This is the largest NHS inquiry ever. It is not just about Bristol but about the whole organisation and culture of the NHS.

"We will not just be looking at surgery. Our whole examination will be wider than that.

"We will want to hear from people. It is possible that there are still parents who are not aware of the inquiry. There may be people working in the NHS who want to get in touch and we want to encourage them to do so."

One witness will appear on the first day of hearings - Tracey Clarke, from Devon.

She is an active member of the Bristol Heart Children's Action Group, which represents around 250 relatives of children who died or suffered brain injuries.

Bid to restore doctors' reputations

Later this week, the inquiry will also hear evidence from the Bristol Surgeons Support Group.

It represents more than 500 families and seeks to restore the reputation of the three doctors involved.

Martin Berry is a spokesman for the group.

He said: "We have been busy collecting as much information as possible to be of significant assistance to the inquiry.

10.52 16-03-99  dhasmana ac
Mr Janardhan Dhasmana: Seeking industrial tribunal
"The public inquiry has to leave no stone unturned to get at the truth of what really happened. If it does that we feel almost certain that the surgeons will be vindicated."

It emerged on Monday that Mr Janardhan Dhasmana, who was sacked by the BRI, is to take his former employers to an industrial tribunal.

His supporters hope that members who had surgery as children but who are outside the inquiry remit dates might still be able to give evidence.

Mr Berry said: "These were children who survived through pioneering times and who are grateful for everything that was done for them."

James Westhead looks at how the BRI has improved standards
BBC Health Correspondent Richard Hannaford looks to the future
BBC Health Correspondent James Westhead reports from the inquiry chambers
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