A nurse who worked for Stephen Hawking for 15 years has been suspended in a secret tribunal over allegations of ‘serious’ misconduct concerning his care.
The scientist’s immediate family had lodged a complaint which prompted a long investigation into 61-year-old Patricia Dowdy, The Mail on Sunday has learned.
But details of the case, and the nature of the disciplinary charges against Mrs Dowdy, have been suppressed by the body which regulates nursing.
Patricia Dowdy (centre) watches on as former Chancellor George Osborne greets scientist Stephen Hawking in 2014
The public and the media have been banned from the hearing in a move that will prompt renewed concerns about a shift towards ‘secret justice’.
Because of the severity of the allegations against her, which have never been made public, Mrs Dowdy was suspended by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) when the claims came to light.
The ‘substantive’ hearing that will ultimately decide her fate is now ongoing – but is being held behind closed doors. And it is likely that the charges will never be publicly disclosed.
It is understood that the nurse, from Ipswich, Suffolk, stopped working for Hawking at least two years before he succumbed to motor neurone disease in March last year, aged 76.
When a Mail on Sunday reporter turned up at the NMC in Stratford, East London, he was denied entry and told that Mrs Dowdy’s ‘fitness-to-practise’ hearing, due to end later this month, was private.
Later, the NMC said a secrecy order was granted because of Mrs Dowdy’s ‘health’, but declined to elaborate further.
Dowdy, 61, has been suspended for serious misconduct allegations over her treatment of the scientist
Asked about the allegations at her home yesterday, Mrs Dowdy said: ‘This is all very upsetting. Can I just say “no comment” at the moment? I’m not supposed to talk to anyone.’
A source with knowledge of the case said the charges against the nurse were ‘pretty serious’ but declined to discuss the matter further. In 2004, ten nurses who had cared for Hawking accused his second wife, Elaine Mason, of abusing him. It is not known if Mrs Dowdy was among those who made statements to police or if that case is connected to the ongoing hearing.
At the time it emerged that the author of A Brief History Of Time was repeatedly taken to hospital with unexplained injuries, such as a broken wrist, gashes to the face and a cut lip, that left his family concerned for his safety. Both he and Mrs Mason denied the allegations and police took no action.
Last night, MPs and campaigners reacted with dismay to the decision to hold disciplinary hearings in secret.
Details of the case, and the nature of the disciplinary charges against Mrs Dowdy, have been suppressed by the body which regulates nursing – to the fury of the scientist’s family
Independent MP John Woodcock, who helped his constituents fight for NMC hearings into midwives implicated in the needless deaths of babies at Furness General Hospital in Cumbria, warned the secrecy could increase the risk of a further tragedy.
He said: ‘It is deeply concerning that the NMC is seeking to reduce transparency.’
Why cases like this MUST be heard in the open
MPs and patient safety campaigners are increasingly concerned about creeping secrecy at the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), which regulates the UK’s 690,000 nurses and midwives and holds disciplinary hearings.
In September 2016 it stopped publishing detailed charges faced by nurses and midwives ahead of NMC hearings. National newspaper coverage of hearings subsequently plummeted from 51 cases in 2016 to 16 in 2018.
Last March, the then NMC chief executive Jackie Smith announced plans to hold public hearings ‘only in exceptional circumstances’, arguing that a softer approach would encourage people to admit more mistakes. In July, the NMC published its new fitness to practise strategy which stated: ‘In many cases, a full public hearing may not be necessary.’
The Professional Standards Authority, which oversees health and social care regulators, criticised the move, pointing out that the NMC’s own constitution says cases should normally be ‘dealt with in a public forum’.
The current trend means there’s a danger that should there be another scandal like the ‘Musketeer Midwives’ – whose pro-natural labour beliefs led to the deaths of 11 babies and one mother, and who were exposed by The MoS in 2015 – the details of any disciplinary hearing might never be brought into the open.
And open justice campaigner John Hemming added: ‘Justice in the dark is never proper justice. If you want people to have confidence in the regulator, then justice needs to be done – and seen to be done.’
Prof Hawking had been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 30 and was attended to by a rota of private nurses and carers paid for by Cambridge University, where he was a mathematics professor.
Often, Mrs Dowdy was at his side. She was pictured with him in 2014 when he met then Chancellor George Osborne at an event in London.
A few months later she was described as having ‘held [Hawking’s] hand, to enable a light handshake’ when he was introduced to a journalist.
Hawking married his first wife, Jane, in 1965, soon after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and they had three children: Lucy, Robert and Tim. But fame placed a strain on the marriage and they divorced in 1995.
He later married his nurse Elaine Mason, whose ex-husband, engineer David Mason, made Hawking’s voice synthesiser. They divorced in 2006.
Last night a spokesman for the family said they did not wish to comment on the NMC hearing but said: ‘The past year has been a very distressing time for us.’
The NMC maintained that it was not intending to hold more hearings behind closed doors.
It said: ‘Hearings will usually take place in public. In some cases, including this particular case, there are reasons why this doesn’t happen, due to the health of those involved. We will continue to give full reasons for the decisions we take so there is transparency about what steps have been taken to protect the public and why.’
However, in many recent cases the MoS was unable to find any published details of allegations against nurses.
Alan Clamp, chief executive of the Professional Standards Authority which oversees health regulators, said: ‘We support efforts to make fitness-to-practise hearings less adversarial. Public confidence, however, is an essential part of regulation. We think open hearings are an important way of assuring the public that serious cases are dealt with properly.’